'We're not animals': Frustrations mount for Neskantaga First Nation as water crisis drags on

TORONTO — Frustrations are mounting for more than 250 evacuees from a northwestern Ontario First Nation as a water crisis that forced them from their homes shows few signs of ending any time soon.

The members of Neskantaga First Nation were transported from their homes in late October after an oily sheen was found in the Neskantaga water reservoir. Initial testing results found high levels of hydrocarbons in the drinking water.

Ever since, the majority of the evacuees have been staying at a hotel more than 400 kilometres away in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Neskantaga First Nation has been under a boil-water advisory for 25 years, the longest such advisory in Canada.

Many of the region’s nearly 400 residents have never experienced life at home with potable tap water, while others have become so used to having harmful drinking water that it’s almost become routine.

“One third of my age is under the boil-water advisory,” said Peter Moonias, a 75-year-old former chief of Neskantaga First Nation. “Even here in Thunder Bay, I cannot take a drink from tap water because I’m so used to being afraid to drink from the tap water in my house.”

The evacuation has been particularly hard on the youth of Neskantaga First Nation, who’ve been relegated to their hotel rooms for school work as COVID-19 restrictions cancelled their makeshift classrooms.

Twelve-year-old Lyndon Sakanee and some of the other youth held a rally in Thunder Bay last week, calling for action on the water crisis so they can finally go home.

“We’re not animals or things,” he said. “We are human, like you guys.”

Lyndon said he felt invisible for much of the rally.

“A few people just turned around and went back where they came from,” he said. “They didn’t even care for us.”

According to Indigenous Services Canada, water distribution was returned to Neskantaga First Nation on Nov. 12, while performance testing of a new water treatment plant is expected to be complete on Dec. 2.

However, it remains unclear when exactly the residents of the First Nation will be able to return home and when the 25-year-old boil-water advisory will ultimately be lifted. 

GOV’T ‘AGRESSIVELY COMMITTED’ TO LIFTING WATER ADVISORIES  

Prime Minister had promised to end all boil-water advisories on Frist Nations land by 2021, but has since backtracked from that promise, blaming the COVID-19 pandemic for delays.

In a statement, ISC said that it’s too early to determine the impact of the pandemic on its plan to end boil-water advisories, but said the department remains “aggressively committed” to the goal.

“Our work on water infrastructure is not just focused on the short term and will not end in Spring 2021,” a spokesperson for the office of Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller wrote in a statement. “We know there is work needed beyond this commitment to ensure communities have the reliable infrastructure they need and we will keep working in partnership to see this happen.”

Since November 2015, the federal government has helped lift 97 long-term drinking water advisories and 165 short-term advisories, meaning notices that lasted less than 12 months.

As of Nov. 10, 59 long-term water advisories remain in effect.

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