EDITORIALS  Still No Clean Water in Neskantaga First Nation

The Neskantaga First Nation declared a state of emergency for the second time this year on September 14, the day after both their primary and back-up water pumps broke. The damage to both pumps led to the contamination of the community’s tap water. Even after being boiled, as recommended by a federal advisory, the water has reportedly caused headaches, fevers, and skin infections. In light of the health risks posed to the community, the Chief of the Neskantaga First Nation, Christopher Moonias, called for an evacuation notice, which the Canadian government has rejected. 

The lack of access to clean drinking water in the Neskantaga First Nation is a clear human rights violation, indicative of the government’s purposeful disregard for Indigenous peoples in Canada. The First Nation has been under a boil water advisory and without access to safe tap water since 1995, which has fundamentally altered everyday life in the community. Prior to the elementary school’s closure on September 15, its filtration system had been a key source of safe, clean drinking water for Neskantaga First Nation residents alongside a temporary Reverse Osmosis Unit on the nearby Attawapiskat Lake. While the school was open, it was a normal part of the children’s day to fill water bottles and containers to take home to their families. This not only took critical time away from their education, but put the responsibility on children to provide safe, drinkable water for their families. 

Both the government and the media are characterizing boil water advisories as the results of “challenges [in] infrastructure,” as opposed to clear displays of racism and colonial violence through the government’s failure to provide basic life necessities to Indigenous communities. Despite having been promised a new water treatment facility by 2018, the First Nation is still waiting for an operational facility nine months after the deadline. 

On September 13, the Neskantaga First Nation made an emergency evacuation request to Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) for 188 of the residents most directly impacted, which included individuals with chronic illnesses, infants, and elderly people. Over 18 hours later, ISC rejected Chief Moonias’ evacuation request, which he announced to members and residents of the First Nation via Facebook

Kevin Deagle, Press Secretary for the Minister of Indigenous Services, stated that the Ministry had a “firm commitment to resolving this issue and ensuring access to clean water for [the] Neskantaga First Nation,” despite not having sent pump repair technicians to the community until 48 hours after the original request. The Neskantaga First Nation remains reliant on bottled water just months after Trudeau announced plans to ban single-use plastics. 

Following the rejection of their evacuation request, Chief Moonias called for a self-evacuation. As a result, the community is faced with financial uncertainty: residents are staying in hotels at their own expense in order to access safe drinking water. Councillor Allan Moonias stated that “it’s probably going to cost [the community] half a million dollars.” Seamus O’Regan, the Minister of Indigenous Services, told The Globe and Mail that the Ministry respects “Chief Moonias’ decision to evacuate his community and [is] focused on ensuring that community members […] have the health and wellness supports they need.” He vaguely added that the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs “will work to minimize any financial impacts that result from the self-evacuation,” with no clear indication of how much of the financial burden will fall back on the community. Indigenous Services Canada has also claimed that a new water treatment system will be ready in October, but community members are skeptical, given that the project was promised to be completed by 2018.

As areas across Canada are impacted by disparate water crises, it is important to keep context in mind. Chief Moonias expressed that he “will not involve [himself] in any discussion that will compare [the Neskantaga First Nation] with other First Nation communities.” He added, “our issues and crisis is unique and should be treated as such.” There are currently 56 separate areas in Canada affected by boil water advisories, each facing their own struggles and their own issues – all caused by the same government’s violence. We must condemn such violations of human rights and the Canadian government’s dismissal of people in crisis. In light of the upcoming climate march on September 27, we must recognize that sustainability practices which do not include Indigenous realities are counter-productive. While it is important to reduce plastic waste, the Prime Minister cannot call for a blanket ban on single-use plastics while the government’s willful inefficiency leaves many communities with no choice but to rely on them.

According to Chief Moonias, no GoFundMe page is affiliated with the Neskantaga First Nation at this time. You can support the Neskantaga First Nation by donating to the Gathering of Rivers for Community Care, a charity the First Nation is affiliated with through Matawa First Nations Management.