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Ontario’s Neskantaga community evacuates over water reservoir contamination

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Under a 25-year boil-water advisory — Canada’s longest — northwestern Ontario’s Neskantaga First Nation says it has now evacuated the majority of its residents after discovering what band leaders say are hydrocarbons in the local water reservoir.

The Neskantaga First Nation, a remote Oji-Cree First Nation band government in the northern tip of Ontario, says it first discovered a suspicious sheen in the reservoir last week and ordered for samples to be tested. Water samples were taken by Nibi Water Services of Matawa First Nations Management, officials said.

Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias also warned that the band’s water treatment plant reservoir keeps losing pressure due to a possible leak somewhere in the distribution system.

“I am told in my meeting with government officials yesterday that having no water is not a health emergency,” Neskantaga Chief Moonias said in an October 21 statement on Twitter. “I wish they can really see what my people are going through. I wish there was a doctor out there that is brave enough to speak out and say there is a health emergency,” he added.

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Video: Charlie Angus, Member of Parliament for Timmins-James Bay, challenges Health Minister on Neskantaga crisis

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Indigenous Services Canada, who later acknowledged the situation as a health emergency, has said it would provide funding for evacuation efforts. The minister says the federal government is funding $16.44 million for a new water treatment plant and upgrades to the water distribution and wastewater collection systems.

More than 200 residents of the Neskantaga First Nation were flown out and have been relocated to hotels in Thunder Bay (about 450 km south) until the water issues are resolved.

It is the second time in just over a year that a water crisis has forced an evacuation of the community of about 240 people. Last September, the entire population was forced to leave after a broken water pump left inadequate water pressure for homes in the community.

Chief Moonias posted pictures of the sheen on social media as well as pictures of residents getting water from the local lake to use for bathing, cleaning, dishes, laundry, and flushing of toilets so that the community can ration its bottled water for drinking and cooking.

“Disheartening and sad that I have to evacuate the elderly, infants, chronic and the most vulnerable people due to water issues twice during my short term as Chief, especially now during COVID-19 scare,” Moonias wrote on Twitter.

The federal government has made significant progress on lifting long-term drinking water advisories for public systems on reserves. Since a renewed push in late 2015, Canada has lifted 88 long-term drinking water advisories. Sixty-one advisories remain in effect.

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