Canada Ignores Urgent Public Health Crisis, Refuses to Support Neskantaga First Nation Evacuation Again

Thunder Bay, ON: Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler and Neskantaga First Nation Chief Chris Moonias have demanded a coordinated response to the State of Emergency declared by the remote community as immediate heath threats from the water system has forced the community to evacuate its members.

“For weeks Chief Moonias has made desperate pleas to the government for support in addressing the water crisis in Neskantaga First Nation. Yesterday, after a full shut down of the system, Chief Moonias and Council were forced to make the only decision available to them, and we fully support their decision to evacuate,” said Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler. “In a remote community, a major infrastructure failure is a crisis, and even more so in the middle of a global pandemic. Community members are living in dehumanizing condition and cannot bathe or flush their toilets. This is a health emergency crisis, plain and simple. It is unacceptable that government officials refuse to declare this as an emergency. The people of Neskantaga need to be supported in every way possible, and we will do everything we can to help”.

After participating in a call today with senior government officials from Indigenous Services Canada who refused to acknowledge the severity of the situation and classify it as a public health crisis, Grand Chief Fiddler has written to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urging that he immediately intervene. Because of this decision by federal officials, there is currently no government support for the evacuation.

“In 2016, I listened to former Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett promising that Neskantaga would have clean drinking water in 2018. That was another promise broken, and yesterday I was left with no choice but to call for the immediate evacuation of our most vulnerable citizens,” said Neskantaga First Nation Chief Chris Moonias. “This is the second time I have had to do so in my short time as Chief. This is a public health crisis, and the government is looking for every excuse and pushing back at every turn. The lack of support is making me sick, but I will continue to do whatever is necessary to protect the health and safety of my community”.

Neskantaga has not had safe drinking water since 1995 – the longest running boil water advisory in Canada. A water treatment plant was constructed in 2016 but there have been numerous delays, equipment failures and related infrastructure failures. The system failed in 2019, and the long-standing boil water advisory was replaced with a Do Not Consume warning. Indigenous Services Canada refused to evacuate the community.

Evacuation Status:

  • The community has initiated the first phase of an evacuation of their most vulnerable members.
  • 56 people were flown to Thunder Bay Tuesday evening and are lodging in local hotels.
  • 120 people are expected to arrive in Thunder Bay on Wednesday.

Community Situation:

  • Due to ongoing leaks depleting the water reservoir in the community, the water distribution system has had to be fully shut off from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. daily since October 8, 2020, to allow adequate time for the reservoir to replenish and prevent the pump from being overworked.
  • Late on the evening of October 19, after the water distribution had been shut off for the day, what resembles an oily sheen was found on the top of the water within the community’s reservoir.
  • Due to the health and safety concerns caused by this unknown substance on top of the water, the community did not turn the water distribution back on this morning and it will remain shut off until the substance can be identified and addressed. This has left the community without any running water.
  • Technicians took water samples on October 20 of the substance and sent them to a lab for expedited testing. Results are expected by Thursday evening.

Technical Background:

  • With the water being completely shut off, the reverse osmosis unit (the drinking water machine) is not functional.
  • The new water treatment plant cannot become operational until it passes a 14-day test run. It is not expected to pass the test run because a sewage lift station is not adequate to handle water from backwashing the filters (a cleaning process that is part of regular plant operations).
  • The school is shut down because the plumbing in the school is not working properly due to constantly turning the water off and on in the community.
  • Work is continuing in the community to assess the distribution system for leaks which requires isolating certain community areas using valves to assess if leaks are present.
  • There is currently no timeline for the sewage lift station work to be completed. This work is necessary for the new water treatment plant to come online and the Long-term Drinking Water Advisory to be lifted.

Neskantaga First Nation is a remote Oji-Cree community in Treaty No. 9 territory situated on the shores of Attawapiskat Lake in the District of Kenora, approximately 430 km northeast of Thunder Bay.

For more information please contact:
Michael Heintzman
Director of Communications
Office: (807) 625-4965
Cell: (807) 621-2790
mheintzman@nan.ca