TORONTO — First Nations leaders called on the Ontario and federal governments Monday to help relocate the community of Kashechewan as it deals with annual flooding — a problem one said would have already been solved if it involved a non-Indigenous population.
Communities in eastern and central Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick are dealing with spring flooding — some with help from military members — but it’s an issue for Kashechewan every year.
The northern Ontario community of 2,500 first flooded in 1976 and has been evacuated annually for the past several years while its members wait for the federal government to fulfil its promises to move them to a permanent new location.
“Both levels of government — Ontario and Canada — has allowed this to be normalized,” said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox. “I believe personally that if these were non-Native, non-First Nations people, action would have happened a lot sooner. I sincerely believe that.”
Federal Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan said he is committed to the relocation of Kashechewan.
“In the long term we are working closely with the community to achieve progress on vital aspects of relocation, including the transfer of provincial lands to Canada to be designated as reserve lands, working on an access road to the site, the extension of hydro services, a demographics exercise, and planning and design of the new community,” he said in a statement Monday.
Ontario Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford said the province stands with Kashechewan in its call to the federal government for relocation.
“The federal government has constitutional jurisdiction with respect to reserve creation, and a moral obligation to provide the desperately needed long-term solution that the people of Kashechewan First Nation deserve,” he said. “The families and children of Kashechewan have a right to a safe and healthy community like every other Canadian.”
But NDP Leader Andrea Horwath noted that Ontario was part of a tripartite agreement signed in 2017, and said the situation is just as much Ontario’s responsibility.
“Somebody needs to step up to the plate,” she said. “They can’t simply point fingers at each other.”
Kashechewan Chief Leo Friday said the annual disruptions hurt the community’s connection to the land and culture.
“Because we’ve been displaced and dislocated every spring, we lost a lot of our culture, traditions and teaching,” he said. “We can’t even train our young generation how to harvest in the springtime. Even a lot of our young adults too are having a hard time calling geese, calling ducks and that’s how it is when you don’t live harmony with the land.”
The evacuations disrupt hunting seasons, and children’s schooling, community members and Indigenous leaders said.
“We can only imagine, those of us who don’t have to go through this, what it’s like to leave our homes every single year, to go to a hotel in a strange city, to wait it out and hope that when we return our homes are still there, that our homes are intact, that our community is intact,” said Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald.
“That’s what this community goes through every year and has for the last 17 years.”
Community members are set to rally Tuesday on Parliament Hill.