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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question during a news conference in Ottawa, on Oct. 23, 2020.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walked back a promise to lift all on-reserve boil-water advisories by 2021 on Friday, as the First Nation with Canada’s longest-standing drinking water advisory learned it needs to wait for more tests before it can turn the taps back on.

Trudeau’s comments came when he was asked about the situation in Neskantaga First Nation, where an unknown contaminant in the water prompted officials to shut off the pipes earlier this week, leaving the community without running water and forcing a partial evacuation.

The First Nation in a remote part of northwestern Ontario has been under a drinking water advisory for 25 years.

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Trudeau said the pandemic was behind the need to roll back the government’s five-year-old promise.

“Understandably, COVID-19 and the travel restrictions have come and created challenges in certain communities and certain paths forward,” he said. “But we continue to be optimistic we’re going to be able to lift those remaining boil-water advisories soon.”

He noted that roughly 90 long-term boil-water advisories have lifted since his government took power in 2015, but around 60 remain.

“This is a commitment that matters an awful lot to us as a government but matters even more to Indigenous communities across the country that have gone in many cases decades without safe drinking water,” Trudeau said.

He didn’t comment on Neskantaga’s specific case.

Meanwhile, the head of Nishnawbe Aski Nation – which represents 49 First Nations in northern Ontario, including Neskantaga – said preliminary results show there are hydrocarbons in the First Nation’s water reservoir, making it unsuitable to be used for anything at all.

As it stands, about 230 residents of Neskantaga are staying in Thunder Bay, Ont. – roughly 430 kilometres from home.

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Even before this week’s discovery of an “oily sheen” in the reservoir, Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias said the community had to turn off the taps overnight to build up a water supply that’s depleting due to leaks.

On Thursday, Moonias and his council sent a list of minimum demands to the government that they said must be met before they’ll send evacuees back to the reserve.

The demands include fixes to the water distribution system so that the community has access to running water 24/7, repairs to water-related hardware in homes, the installation of two mobile membrane water treatment units, and a system-wide review of the plan to end the drinking water advisory.

Michael McKay, director of infrastructure and housing with Nishnawbe Aski Nation, said the problems with Neskantaga’s water supply are symptoms of the government’s on-reserve drinking-water strategy.

“They’re trying to address a broken system while only addressing one aspect of that system,” he said.

Specifically, the government is looking at the water treatment system and not considering the water distribution system, McKay said.

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Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said the government’s plan to eliminate boil-water advisories is “limited in scope.”

“They’re just looking at source-to-treatment – or running a line to a lake or river, and then to the treatment plant. Whereas with us, we’re saying it needs to be broader in scope. From source to tap,” he said.

Fiddler said another issue is that the people designing the systems are seldom from remote First Nations, so they don’t understand the unique needs of the communities or the real-world impacts of every decision.

“It’s very difficult to properly assess what is actually going on if you’re just going by reports on paper,” he said.

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