Residents who haven’t evacuated from Neskantaga First Nation are collecting lake water while their taps run dry. Videos courtesy of Neskantaga First Nation and Michael Heintzman
Residents in a First Nation in northern Ontario have had “absolutely no access to water” in the community for more than three days, meaning they can’t bathe or flush toilets.
Neskantaga First Nation, a remote Oji-Cree community in northern Ontario, called a state of emergency on Tuesday and shut down its water system because an unknown oily sheen appeared on the water in the reservoir following a system reboot late Monday.
The following day, the school and nursing station were shut down, and more than 200 people have been evacuated from the community to Thunder Bay, about 430 kilometres southwest of the First Nation. Those who have stayed behind are relying on bottled water or wading through frigid waters to collect fresh lake water.
Test results that determine what the substance is are expected Friday.
According to Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias, government officials weren’t supportive when the situation was first brought to their attention on Tuesday evening.
“I am told in my meeting with government officials (Tuesday) that having no water is not a health emergency,” Moonias said in a tweet on Wednesday. Moonias added that he wished officials could see what his people were going through.
After Moonias’ tweet, Indigenous Services Canada said it would help the community.
“We are deeply concerned by the shutdown of Neskantaga’s water distribution system. We recognize that this situation is a health emergency,” ISC spokesperson, Vanessa Adams, told VICE News. Adams added the ministry will pay for evacuation efforts and is monitoring the situation closely.
“This is a health emergency crisis, plain and simple,” Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said in a public statement. Nishnawbe Aski Nation represents almost 50 First Nations, including Neskantaga.
Fiddler wrote a public letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday, urging him to intervene after Indigenous Services failed to support Neskantaga evacuation efforts.
“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,” the letter says.
“Are we not important?” Fiddler asks. “Are we not human?”
Moonias has since listed minimum demands that he says must be met before residents return to the First Nation, including running water that’s available around the clock, even if a boil water advisory persists, and a government examination of the infrastructure.
In a video taken this week and sent out by Michael Heintzman, a Nishnawbe Aski Nation spokesperson, former Neskantaga Chief Wayne Moonias stands at the rocky bank of a lake while he fills four empty milk gallons with lake water, which…