Remaining residents in First Nation evacuated over water crisis watch over community

Holly McKenzie-Sutter
·3 min read

Residents left behind in a remote First Nation in northwestern Ontario that has been largely evacuated over a water crisis battled the cold and separation from relatives as they unloaded water deliveries and watched over the community on Sunday.

Kelvin Moonias said he woke up feeling depressed knowing his grandchildren and other familiar community members, such as radio broadcasters and elders who lead community prayers, were hundreds of kilometres away.

"This morning it was different knowing your people aren't here," Moonias said in a recorded video provided to reporters by Matawa First Nations Management, which is assisting in the crisis response for Neskantaga First Nation.

"It's kind of depressing now. I think some people are starting to feel it right now, the missing your family part."

Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias upgraded to a full evacuation on Saturday after tests showed high levels of hydrocarbons in the water supply.

The move comes after roughly 230 residents -- most of whom were considered vulnerable -- were evacuated from the community to Thunder Bay, Ont., earlier in the week -- a city roughly 430 kilometres from their home.

Neskantaga, with an on-reserve population of about 460 people, has Canada's longest-running boil water advisory at 25 years. But in the last week, it lost all running water after officials found an "oily sheen" in the reservoir and turned off the pipes.

Social media posts from Moonias over the weekend indicated families and children were out of the community by 10:30 p.m. Saturday. He reported that a few people stayed behind out of a sense of duty.

"I don’t want to take away the heart and soul from the community," a Sunday Twitter post from the chief said. "I support and respect their decision. Those are true warriors!"

Photos and videos provided by Matawa First Nations Management showed the people who stayed behind moving loads of bottled water from vehicles to homes in the remote community where snow was visibly covering the ground.

“Hopefully there will be some heaters to put in the houses so that our (pipes) don’t freeze,” Lanny Moonias said in one video. “We’re just going day by day here.”

A spokesperson for the Indigenous Services minister's office said the department will provide funding for all evacuation costs.

The statement said the department will also provide funding for bottled water for those who did not evacuate.

"Efforts have been redoubled to address the quality and volume issues that the First Nation has identified with respect to the water supply to Neskantaga First Nation and to support the community’s new water plant to completion and testing," the statement said.

The chief said on social media that he would fly back Monday with technical support workers and federal Indigenous Services representatives to check on the water treatment plant.

Kelvin Moonias said the remaining community members on the ground are relying on each other through their duties in the meantime.

"We're trying to survive here, make sure the houses are taken care of, the dogs. That's a lot of work," he told the video camera. "But what we do here is teamwork, nobody works alone."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 25, 2020.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press