It’s been 28 years since members of Neskantaga First Nation have been able to drink from their taps – continuing the country’s longest boil water advisory in history.
Neskantaga leadership says the boil-water advisory began on February 1, 1995.
“This is not a celebratory day – the suffering continues. The skin conditions, scars and mental health toll persist,” says Chief Wayne Moonias. “This milestone is a reminder that we are still in crisis. It is shameful and unacceptable.”
Chief Moonias adds the community has met with Minister of Indigenous Services, Patty Hajdu, to discuss several issues – including the ongoing boil water advisory.
He notes the community has been working on a strategy to address trauma caused by the long-term water crisis, a new treatment plant training initiative, an investigation into potential upgrades for the plant and a project to clean up used water bottles in the community.
“Although some progress has been made, it has not enabled a member of our community to be able to turn on the tap to receive clean, safe drinking water. It is not the experience of any municipality in Canada – it is absolutely unfair for our people to be treated this way,” adds Chief Moonias.
Issues with Neskantaga’s water treatment plant have caused two major evacuations in recent years.
In 2020, hundreds of Neskantaga community members had to be evacuated from their homes after dangerous hydrocarbons were found in their water system, causing a shutdown of their school and nursing station.
Afterwards, Ottawa committed to $16 million worth of work on Neskantaga’s water treatment plant and said they’d provide funding for a full-time plant operator position for the community to try to end the long-term boil water advisory.
But that came after years of delays for community members.
$8.8 million of repair work for the plant, announced in July 2017, was supposed to be completed by May 2018 but got pushed back to March 2019 due to disputes with the contractor.
Community members were also evacuated to Thunder Bay in September 2019 after a failure at the same plant, which brought unchlorinated water into the system. The repair work was called for after numerous failures since 2015.
Neskantaga First Nation is located northeast of Thunder Bay, is only accessible by air or by an ice road and consists of just under 400 community members.
Ottawa has spent $5.6 billion to end 137 long-term drinking water advisories in First Nation communities since 2015. Still, 33 long-term advisories remain in 29 communities across the country – an increase from December 2022’s numbers.
Northwestern Ontario has the highest concentration of these affected communities in all of Canada, with 13 projects still underway.
The Liberal government originally committed to eliminating all long-term drinking water advisories by March 2021. The goal wasn’t reached, but another $1.5 billion was pledged to accelerate their work with a new goal of 2025.