If Prime Minister were to visit Neskantaga First Nation in northern Ontario, where there is no running water, he would see citizens “in his backyard” living in Third-world conditions, says the community’s chief.

“It should say a lot,” Chief Chris Moonias told The Current‘s Matt Galloway. “It should say to … Canadians that, you know, this is not the country you believe it is.”

Home to Canada’s longest standing boil-water advisory, Neskantaga First Nation has been without safe drinking water for more than 25 years. Last week, a new crisis emerged in the Ojibway community of about 300 people when an “oily sheen” was discovered on water in the local reservoir.

All water services have since been shut down in the community and families have been forced to leave their homes for shelter in Thunder Bay, Ont., more than 400 kilometres away. With the threat of COVID-19, residents have been reluctant to leave.

Allan Moonias, another community member, said that during the drive into town from the Thunder Bay airport, his kids were surprised to find a bathroom with running water on their shuttle bus.

“We don’t have water at our home,” he said. “I don’t know how to explain it, but like, I wish we could have that kind of system in our community.”

'This is not the country you believe it is,' Neskantaga First Nation chief says amid water crisis
Hundreds of Neskantaga First Nation residents were evacuated from the community and are staying in Thunder Bay, Ont. (Sol Mamakwa/Twitter)

Not the 1st water incident

Chris Moonias said he has never been able to drink tap water from his community. The chief described the experience as “traumatizing” and “dehumanizing” — one that has a psychological impact.

“Even here in Thunder Bay, where there’s clean drinking water … I can’t seem to bring myself to drink water from the tap,” he explained. “I have to go get bottled water because it’s automatically ingrained in my head that, you know, it’s like that everywhere.”

It’s not the first time residents have had to flee the community because of water issues. A similar situation happened last September, and a few years ago, residents were forced out because of forest fires, Chris Moonias said.

On Thursday, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said the federal government is working “as quickly as possible” to end the First Nation’s decades-old boil-water advisory, and is helping expedite testing on the oily substance in the community’s reservoir.

But the chief says the government already had 25 years to fix the problem.

'This is not the country you believe it is,' Neskantaga First Nation chief says amid water crisis
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says his government is working ‘as quickly as possible’ to end the boil-water advisory in Naskantaga First Nation. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

“They’re using COVID-19 as an excuse. How come they didn’t do it last year, two years ago, 2018 when we were promised?” he said.

“In 2016, we were promised that our water treatment plant would be finished in spring of 2018. Minister [Carolyn] Bennett, at the time, told my daughter right in her face that you will have clean drinking water in spring of 2018.”

The Liberals, under Trudeau’s leadership, campaigned on an election platform in 2015 that promised to end all First Nations boil-water advisories within five years. Although elected that year, they started the clock on that pledge in 2016, putting the deadline in March of 2021. 

There are currently more than 60 long-term drinking water advisories in place across the country, and more than 90 have been lifted since late 2015.

The Liberals’ September throne speech made no mention of the 2021 deadline. When asked on Friday about the situation in Neskantaga, Trudeau said it is difficult to end boil-water advisories, “otherwise other governments would have done it.”

‘We want to … feel safe,’ says chief

Wauzhushk Onigum Nation Chief Chris Skead knows what Neskantaga First Nation residents are going through. His community was under a boil-water advisory for three years, until they got access to clean water late last month. 

“We would have two jugs of water that would come once a week and we would have to limit the amount of water that our people would be able to take with them,” he said.

“In regards to like, when we’d give our children a bath … [the water] would have like, a little bit of a yellow look to it, almost like apple juice or something, and I had [real] worries when I would give my grandson a bath.”

He said his prayers are with the community.

As for Chris Moonias, he hopes the situation will be fixed.

“We want to be able to go back to [having] running water 24 hours a day,” he said. “We want to be able to feel safe that, you know, there are no contaminants found in the water.”

Written by Kirsten Fenn, with files from CBC News. Produced by Ines Colabrese, Kate Cornick and Rachel Levy-McLaughlin.

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