The federal Indigenous Services Minister is promising a Northern Ontario First Nation that the government will repair and eventually replace a broken lagoon that has never worked properly and is now sending raw sewage into the community and toward the lake that holds its water supply.
The sewage lagoon at the North Caribou Lake First Nation has leaked every year since it was constructed with federal dollars, and to federal specifications, in 1997.
But this winter the lagoon burst, sending its contents streaming across the north end of the reserve toward a creek that runs through the Oji-Cree community about 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.
Chief Dinah Kanate says that, when she asked for help in February, an official with Indigenous Services Canada (ICS) told her there was no money to quickly fix the leak. The government had previously provided $265,000 to the First Nation to study the feasibility of replacing both the lagoon and the community’s water-treatment plant at some point in the future.
After a story about the sewage problem appeared this week in The Globe and Mail, Seamus O’Regan, the Indigenous Affairs Minister, called Ms. Kanate to tell her that the flow from the lagoon would be stopped.
“I am deeply concerned about the situation involving the sewage lagoon in North Caribou Lake First Nation. It is unacceptable that people in the community have had to live with this problem for decades, as conditions continued to worsen," Mr. O’Regan said Thursday in a statement provided to The Globe.
“On Wednesday, I spoke with Chief Dinah Kanate and assured her of our commitment to work directly with community leadership and Windigo First Nations Council [the tribal council that represents North Caribou Lake] on short and long-term solutions to resolve this.”
Ms. Kanate said ISC officials plan to be in the community next on Monday to talk about the lagoon.
The ISC department said in an e-mail last week that it had asked Windigo in March to provide a plan and cost estimates for stopping the leak, but did not say the government would help pay for the work that needed to be done.
In a subsequent e-mail sent Thursday, the ISC said it will work with all parties to support immediate repairs.
The poorly constructed lagoon at North Caribou Lake is part of a larger issue of outdated and badly functioning water and wastewater infrastructure that exists on reserves across Canada. The federal government has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars over the past three years to address the national problem.
An engineering report about the North Caribou Lake lagoon sent in July, 2003, to what was then the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs says the structure has always leaked and cited seepage losses that were 20 times higher than expected.
This winter, raw sewage began pouring over the top of the lagoon or through cracks in its walls.
Recent tests by a consultant hired by the First Nation showed that the E. coli found in most parts of the reserve was below levels that can threaten human health. But the amount discovered outside the lagoon on its eastern side was so high it could not be measured.
The community of just less than 700 people is worried about what will happen during the spring thaw, when the sewage starts flowing faster, and how its water supply and the lake, where people swim and fish, could be affected. Meanwhile, dogs are running through the flow and carrying the sewage into houses.
Although Ms. Kanate said last week that ISC told her “there was no money to deal with this, they couldn’t deal with this situation we have here,” the department says that was a misunderstanding.
“The comment made by a departmental official was not a blanket statement regarding the current and immediate issues with the lagoon,” the department said in an e-mail. “The comment was intended to indicate the need for the feasibility study to be completed, prior to considering funding of design/construction for a long-term solution to the wastewater issues in the community.”