The federal government is moving to support people displaced by a water crisis in a remote First Nation in northwestern Ontario and is working to end the 25-year boil water advisory "as quickly as possible," says Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller.
About 200 people were evacuated from Neskantaga earlier this week after the water plant was shut down after an unknown substance was found in the reservoir. That left the community of 300 people without any running water at all. It has been more than 25 years since the First Nation had tap water that is safe to drink.
"No water to bathe. No water to flush toilets. No water servicing homes, the nursing station, the band office, the school," Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday afternoon.
"We are in the middle of a global pandemic. You are aware that remote and isolated communities are even more vulnerable to the risks of the COVID-19 virus. I reiterate — there is absolutely no access to water in this community."
Fiddler asked for the top-level intervention after he said the community was rebuffed by bureaucrats within Indigenous Services Canada.
"I do understand there was a perhaps a miscommunication or a misunderstanding between officials initially but I don't think it has changed the nature of the situation, it is an emergency," Miller told CBC News on Thursday afternoon.
Some of the people who are not on the initial evacuation list opted to leave on their own, said Chief Chris Moonias, including his own 23-year-old daughter, who has never had safe tap water.
"She's paying her own ticket because she's not part of the evacuation list for vulnerable people," Moonias said. "A lot of people aren't able to do that. She's not rich by any stretch but she works and she's able to leave."
Fewer than 50 people remain in Neskantaga, with some taking the risk of going out on unstable ice to collect lake water for flushing toilets.
"It's dangerous to be out there," Moonias said.
Wayne Moonias, one of the people remaining in the community, has been using lake water to flush the toilet in his house, but he said the sewage smell is becoming stronger and increasingly difficult to tolerate.
"To displace people from their homes, it's a sad sight to see that. The hopelessness...there really are no words to describe how the community is feeling," he said. "Our community is very strong but this issue needs to be resolved."
Miller said Indigenous Services would support anyone who wants to leave the community.
After more than a decade of advocacy from the First Nation, the federal government promised to build a new water plant for Neskantaga with plans to open it in 2018, but it has yet to be fully functional.
Oily substance in the water
The latest problems began on Oct. 8 when leaks somewhere in the system prevented the reservoir from filling completely, according to Moonias. The community was shutting water service off at night to increase the amount available during the daytime. On Monday, an unknown oily substance appeared on the surface of the water, resulting in the complete shut down.
Miller said the federal government is helping to expedite the testing on the substance and results are now expected within 24 hours.
"There are a number of moving parts, I don't have a full sense of when that [the water plant opening] will occur but obviously as quickly as possible," he said.
The government recently committed another $4 million to completing the water system in Neskantaga.
"A quarter of a century [without water] is entirely unacceptable," Miller said. The commitment of the initial $8 million obviously proved to be not as much as it should have been which is why we acted quickly to fund a connected issue which was repairs to the distribution system."
Once the water plant is fully operational, there are also problems with the waste water to be dealt with, he said.
Meanwhile, Wayne Moonias said people who have left the community are missing out on the fall hunting season and the opportunity to cut firewood for the coming winter.
"There are still a lot of unknowns," he said. "It's just not a good feeling going into our 26th year without something other people take for granted."