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

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.

Even before this week’s discovery of an “oily sheen” in the reservoir, Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias said the community had to turn off the taps overnight to build up a water supply that’s depleting due to leaks.

On Thursday, Moonias and his council sent a list of minimum demands to the government that they said must be met before they’ll send evacuees back to the reserve.

The demands include fixes to the water distribution system so that the community has access to running water 24/7, repairs to water-related hardware in homes, the installation of two mobile membrane water treatment units, and a system-wide review of the plan to end the drinking water advisory.

Michael McKay, director of infrastructure and housing with Nishnawbe Aski Nation, said the problems with Neskantaga’s water supply are symptoms of the government’s on-reserve drinking-water strategy.

“They’re trying to address a broken system while only addressing one aspect of that system,” he said.

Specifically, the government is looking at the water treatment system and not considering the water distribution system, McKay said.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said the government’s plan to eliminate boil-water advisories is “limited in scope.”

“They’re just looking at source-to-treatment — or running a line to a lake or river, and then to the treatment plant. Whereas with us, we’re saying it needs to be broader in scope. From source to tap,” he said.

Fiddler said another issue is that the people designing the systems are seldom from remote First Nations, so they don’t understand the unique needs of the communities or the real-world impacts of every decision.

“It’s very difficult to properly assess what is actually going on if you’re just going by reports on paper,” he said.

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