This First Nation Is Getting Clean Tap Water For The First Time In 25 Years

Members of the Neskantaga First Nation are set to take their first sips of safe tap water in 25 years. Many refer to it as ‘the moment,’ and it’s a matter of life and death.

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tap water Neskantaga First Nation-a man walks down a snowy road carrying empty water jugs

Ashley Sakanee walks home with three jugs of water that he filled up at the community's osmosis machine, which filters water through a process of osmosis. Ashley said the machine was recently moved to within a kilometre of their house but will likely be moved further away soon. He said he makes 3 or 4 trips a week to fetch water for drinking, cooking and bathing. (Photo: Chris Donovan)

On a November afternoon, Casey Moonias, a 26-year-old mother of three, places firewood in her stove and soon it gives off the warmth and smell of charred lumber. The inside of her home is small and overcrowded with toys and piles of clothes. Outside, like many houses on the Neskantaga First Nation, about 450 km northeast of Thunder Bay, Ont., a black-and-white husky is curled up in the snow by the doorsteps. After about an hour, when the house is warm enough, Moonias fills an electric kettle from a nearby jug, eschewing the water from her tap. Her community has had unsafe water for nearly as long as she’s been alive — unsafe not only for drinking but also, many residents say, for bathing. And this is bath time.

The day before, Ashley Sakanee, Moonias’s partner, fetched three plastic jugs of clean water, each holding four litres, from the community’s reverse-osmosis machine, a laborious process that requires him to trudge 10 minutes down an icy road to the local hotel to fill up, then pull the jugs back on a sled. It’s a trip they make three or more times a week, often to find the machine has broken down or frozen. When that happens, they and the other roughly 300 people living in this First Nation are forced to rely on shipments of bottled water.

Moonias pulls out an inflated tub shaped like a rubber duck from another room and lays it on the living room floor. It takes seven minutes for the water to boil, at which point she pours it into the duck, mixing hot with cold from the jugs. One bath uses up an entire jug, and after feeling it with her hand, Moonias turns to her two-year-old son, Meeson, and says, “Now you can go in.” He splashes everywhere and briefly plays with a toy. His eight-month-old sister, Serena, watches in awe, before Moonias washes his body and hair.

Meeson yearns for the “big tub” in the bathroom, but she refuses to let her children bathe in the community’s water: she fears skin rashes and infections that are common in Neskantaga — residents believe they are caused by something in the tap water — and across northern Ontario, where the water crisis plaguing First Nations across the country is at its worst.

Neskantaga, an Oji-Cree community, has been under a boil-water advisory for the past 25 years, the longest-lasting drinking-water advisory among First Nations in Canada. Moonias, only a year older than the warning itself, has never turned on a tap in her community and drunk from it.

tap water Neskantaga First Nation-ariel view of the waterway

The land surrounding Naskantaga First Nation as seen from above. (Photo: Chris Donovan)

Change is coming. The federal government expects the community’s new water treatment system to be finished by March, at long last bringing an essential resource that is universally available in most developed countries. In 2015, before he was elected, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to end all boil-water advisories on First Nations by March 2021, “because,” as he put it at a town hall, “it’s not right in a country like Canada.” The promise was dismissed as impossible by critics who saw it as another example of the PM over-promising and under-delivering on Indigenous issues. That summer, there were 159 drinking-water advisories across 114 First Nations (a community can have more than one advisory at a time), and the problems varied from one community to the next.

Still, the government has made its clean-water initiative a symbol of Trudeau’s renewed relationship with First Nations, part of his mission to reconcile Canada’s dark colonial past and address the hardships endured by many living on reserves. Money alone — about $2 billion has been budgeted over five years — won’t solve the problem. In any other part of the country, provincial regulations — abetted by training and certification — create conditions for clean, safe drinking water. No such rules exist for First Nations, which fall under Ottawa’s jurisdiction.

At first glance, the government appears to be moving the dial, issuing regular “tracking” updates that show its progress. According to these updates, the government has eliminated 75 long-term drinking-water advisories since 2015, and the work continues apace (long term in this context means more than a year). Critics, though, say the feds’ tracking is flawed, and can come across as self-congratulatory. The 66 advisories that remain include dozens in communities that have backslid into advisory status, along with a few there for the first time.

Neskantaga is a severe example of what life is like trapped under advisory. After years of lugging jugs and buying bottled water, few here believe “the moment” — a phrase several locals used when musing to Maclean’s about the instant they’ll have clean water — will actually happen in March. Construction holdups have delayed the date before. Some will welcome the change. But for others, distrust of the system, and of what comes out of the tap, runs deep. Some say that even after the water comes on, they don’t plan to drink it.

tap water Neskantaga First Nation-an industrial water processing plant filled with pipes and equipment

The water plant at Neskantaga First Nation. (Photo: Chris Donovan)

“Water is life.”

It’s become a mantra at anti-pipeline protests led by First Nations activists, but for residents of Indigenous reserves, its meaning is distinctly practical. A community without water is like a vehicle without fuel: motionless, its destination uncertain. In places like Neskantaga — where the lack of usable water has discouraged development during a housing shortage; where young people commit suicide with tragic frequency; where roughly half the registered population has moved to centres like Thunder Bay or Sioux Lookout, Ont. — the connection seems especially stark.

Ottawa has known this for decades. The federal government set out to improve reserve life in 1977 — policy that aspired to “provide Indian homes and communities with the physical infrastructure that meets commonly accepted health and safety standards, is similar to that available in neighbouring, non-Indian communities,” and is “operated and maintained according to sound management practices.” Clean water was supposed to be part of the plan. But in the ensuing decades, despite water investments in the billions, contamination became a recurring problem in communities throughout the country.

Audits have repeatedly pointed to a lack of laws governing water in First Nations, confusion among bureaucrats amid a web of jurisdictional issues, and insufficient training of personnel and monitoring of filtration systems that were known to be defective from the time they were installed. In 2005, the federal auditor general found that “when it comes to the safety of drinking water, First Nations communities do not benefit from a level of protection comparable with that of people living off reserves.” The auditor general noted again, in 2011, that “more than half of the drinking-water systems on reserves continue to pose a risk to the people who use them.”

Once more, in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded in its final report that Indigenous communities “cannot effectively plan and control the delivery of their services because the federal government has not created a legislative base to hold itself accountable.”

With each bleak assessment, political leaders of the day have voiced incredulity — most recently the then-minister of Indigenous services. “This is Canada — this is one of the most affluent countries in the world,” says Jane Philpott in an interview with Maclean’s. “It’s unconscionable that we have let this go on for such a very long time.”

tap water Neskantaga First Nation-store shelves holding water and pop

The Northern Store is the only grocery and convenience store in Neskantaga. Although the community can get clean water through the town’s osmosis machine, it is far from some houses and some people simply don’t trust that it’s safe. Some opt to purchase bottled water from the Northern Store where 12 bottles can be purchased for around $14 or a jug with under 4 litres for around $8. (Photo: Chris Donovan)

From above, the region surrounding Neskantaga looks like a frozen archipelago. Bodies of water in all shapes and sizes go on endlessly, the landscape weaving among them. The community, accessible only by plane or winter road, sits in a pristine boreal setting known for bears, wolverines and excellent fishing. But its water is drawn from the depths of Attawapiskat Lake, where it’s susceptible to naturally occurring “colour” from the roots of trees, plants and other organic matter — a host of water-borne pathogens, including E.coli, the bacteria that in 2000 contaminated the water of Walkerton, Ont., killing six people. A glass of it looks like iced tea and carries an earthy aroma. Residents in Neskantaga frequently cite an itchiness on their skin that can last more than an hour after showering. Moonias says she bathed Meeson in the big tub only once; afterwards he developed a stye below his eye she believes was caused by bacteria in the water. (She herself takes two or three brief showers a week, saying, “I try not to get any in my mouth or open my eyes.”)

Gloria Atlookan, the community health representative at the local clinic, begins most days with a shower. “It’s hard boiling water all the time, and sometimes I’m tired of it,” she explains. Sitting in her office, the 35-year-old points to a redness on her cheekbones, which she says disappears when she visits Thunder Bay, and returns when she’s back in Neskantaga.

Asked about the community’s concerns about water-related skin problems, Indigenous Services Canada said in a statement that it “has not been made aware of an outbreak of skin rashes . . . nor has the department been contacted by the community” about them. It added that based on documents from the community nursing station, there has not been a rise in skin conditions in recent months. People Maclean’s spoke to in Neskantaga say they treat the rashes as part of life and don’t report them as medical conditions.

For drinking, Atlookan sticks to bottled water she buys from the local Northern grocery store, where prices are high to account for freight costs. Fresh produce and water to wash it are expensive — a 1.5-litre bottle costs $4.85 before taxes, propelling residents toward less healthy packaged food. Diabetes, Atlookan notes, is the reserve’s “main sickness.” Other solutions come with their own risks. Atlookan recalls her parents fetching water from a nearby lake — a source some elders still rely on, despite the E. coli.

Advisories can result from any number of problems with water systems. On the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation in northern B.C., where until December residents lived for 17 years under advisory, it’s the risk of sewage contamination. On the Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation (Grassy Narrows), north of Kenora, Ont., near the Manitoba border, it’s a faulty treatment plant, combined with a cancer-causing chemical found in the water. To the south, in Shoal Lake 40, a First Nation along the body of water that supplies all of Winnipeg, an advisory has been in place since 1997. There’s no treatment plant and the community relies on shipments of bottled water. In other places, it’s the absence of training and manpower to monitor the facilities, or the difficulty of retaining qualified operators in jobs that can be high in stress and low in pay.

In Neskantaga’s case, it’s a filtration system built incorrectly in the early 1990s, which has failed to cleanse the water that runs through it ever since. Since 1995, Ottawa has provided $609,000 to the community to pay for bottled water. Though residents are encouraged to boil tap water before consumption, no amount of boiling will make it pure. As lake water is pumped into the plant’s reservoir, organic molecules in it react with the chlorine that’s supposed to disinfect it, producing chemicals known as trihalomethanes (THMs). Some experts have suggested that prolonged exposure to THMs — a contaminant, among others, that infamously tainted the water of Flint, Mich. — may pose the risk of cancer. Says Atlookan of Neskantaga’s water: “I wonder if it’s going to make you sick 10 or 20 years later.”

Suffice to say, Neskantaga has the half-built, half-abandoned feel you might expect in a place without a working water system. A drive through reveals a hockey rink and a new-looking elementary school. There, children are given bottles to use at a small on-site reverse-osmosis machine (older students continue their schooling in Thunder Bay). Dozens of fire hydrants line the streets, but there are no trained firefighters or hoses due to scant resources for training or equipment. Residents can do little when buildings catch fire but watch as they burn to ashes, as their community centre did in 2006.

tap water Neskantaga First Nation-woman sitting by a window

Gloria Atlookan, the community health representative, poses in the waiting room of the clinic. She has a rash on her face that she believes was caused by the water. She said the rash clears up when she goes to Thunder Bay and returns every time she has a shower in Neskantaga. If the water issue is fixed in the community, she will be partly responsible to inform the community that they can drink from the taps. She said this will be a difficult task because she does not think she will ever trust the tap water herself. (Photo: Chris Donovan)

Wilfred Sakanee is the community’s water operator — he covered for somebody else one weekend in 2005 and never left the job. “Unexperienced, I had nothing,” he laughs. He got by through reading the manual. He’s been told that he and four others will be trained to keep the new facility running. The community’s new water treatment system will use both ultraviolet light and a different chemical to disinfect the water. But at the time of this writing, the system’s parts sat awaiting installation in the building that houses the old system, located about 75 m from the lake. Sakanee, 52, describes the progress as “very, very, very slow.”

Many believe Neskantaga’s bad water counts among the things driving people away, even if they want to stay. Dawn Martin-Hill, a professor of Indigenous studies at McMaster University, from Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario, has observed what she calls “water anxiety,” especially among young mothers, in communities under boil-water advisories. “Mental health is the leading concern for First Nations regarding access to clean water,” she says, adding that solving the plethora of issues facing reserves comes down to the “most basic amenities,” the building blocks for community development. Arguably the most important: potable water.

Tara Sakanee lives in a crowded, mould-ridden home with a large family and water that appears yellow when she runs a bath. She has scars on her forearms that were once painful scabs; blemishes she’s come to believe are from Neskantaga’s water. As a child, her family thought she was allergic to something. The soreness from all the “scabbies,” as she calls them, discouraged her from showering. “People have their own reasons to leave,” she says; high on the list of hers was the water.

At times in her life, Tara, now 33, found herself living in Fort Hope (the Eabametoong First Nation), Sioux Lookout, Thunder Bay and Atikokan, Ont. She came home two years ago and found a job as a teacher’s aide, but wants to move to Toronto or Winnipeg after her contract ends in June. For her, as with many here, trust in the new system Ottawa is about to deliver runs low. When asked if she’ll drink the newly available water, she hesitates. “To be honest, no,” she says, “I don’t think so.”

Clean water in the North isn’t an impossible dream. Ottawa cites remoteness, moving heavy equipment and tough, frozen terrain as challenges for providing it. Yet east of Neskantaga, closer to the Attawapiskat First Nation, clean water for hundreds of workers flows out of the taps at a diamond mine owned and operated by De Beers. Knowing that makes people in northern First Nations feel less deserving, and doubtful that the feds will deliver on their promise. In Neskantaga, Chief Wayne Moonias has voiced concerns about delays in construction. Anne Scotton, director general for the Ontario region with Indigenous Services Canada, responds that she doesn’t foresee any major construction delays, adding that the chief “may have been misinformed” about the timeline.

Scotton, who has been with the department for 12 years, says she’s alive to doubts the new systems will be delivered on time, and that they’ll keep working. When handed this enormous task two years ago, she says, her team sought to build relationships with chiefs and councils that Indigenous advocates say were fractured during Stephen Harper’s tenure. “Communities were not interested in having interim solutions, whereby the advisory is lifted and then everybody cheers,” she says, adding that new systems were developed to last “a long period of time.” Chad Westmacott, the senior director of the strategic water management team within the ministry, stresses a “sense of urgency” to make good on Trudeau’s March 2021 promise. First Nations, he says, are the owners and operators, responsible for monitoring and maintenance of the systems being built: “Our role as a department is to provide funding, to provide advice and to support them.”

On the absence of drinking-water regulations for First Nations, Philpott says she’s working with the Assembly of First Nations to create a legislated regime addressing water-quality standards. The day before speaking to Maclean’s, Philpott reached out to Neskantaga’s chief and council, assuring them of Ottawa’s support and that the construction crew on the ground is now applying finishing touches on the new treatment system. She tells communities that she spent nine years of her life before politics working in the West African country of Niger, in places without clean water; the experience, she says, gave her “a tiny taste of what it’s like.”

The magnitude of the Prime Minister’s promise is not lost on Philpott. “There’s no question that it can and must be done,” she says, adding that before the Liberals formed government, “meticulous organization and detail” was absent and there was no place to find out how many long-term advisories were in place.

“It was a nice gesture,” says Lalita Bharadwaj, a toxicologist and public health professor at the University of Saskatchewan, of Ottawa’s five-year deadline. “But I don’t think it’s possible.” She points to the vastness of the country and the variability of the challenges on the ground; First Nations differ not only culturally, but by size, customs, beliefs and leadership. And they “don’t have the same water source or water quality,” she notes. Bharadwaj has worked with First Nations communities in Saskatchewan on water issues. She often thinks of Neskantaga because her first son was born the year its boil-water advisory was issued: “I can’t imagine raising a child knowing that you have to boil your water. What sort of effects does it have on a family?”

tap water Neskantaga First Nation-baby bathing in a blow-up rubber ducky bath on the floor of the family's home

Casey Moonias gives her two-year-old son after a bath in his inflatable bathtub. She mixes the water from the community osmosis machine with a kettle of boiled water to make it warm. She said he always wants to play in the “big bath” so that he will have room for his toys, but they never have enough water to fill it. They said they once gave him his wish and allowed him to bath in the tap water and he broke out into a rash. She said he loves going to Thunder Bay so he can have a “big bath.” (Photo: Chris Donovan)

The water, or the deprivation of it, leaves its mark. And more severe problems can arise from refusing to wash. In northern Ontario, an alarming number of Indigenous people have been treated for sores and boils on their skin, caused by bacteria known as MRSA, a potentially deadly staph infection able to resist commonly used antibiotics.

Mike Kirlew, a doctor in Sioux Lookout, Ont., for the past decade, has studied the growing rate of MRSA among First Nations. Clean water, he stresses, is as much a health issue as it is an infrastructural one. “Anecdotally, it seems like we’re treating more of these infections now than we did 10 years ago,” he says. Though it’s difficult to draw a direct correlation — to do so would require further study — to issues that can often be multifactorial, he says that “these social determinants of health are big contributors to what we’re seeing. For me, water and housing are non-negotiables. These things can adversely affect your health, and people have known this for years.”

There’s a cemetery in Neskantaga that Gary Quisess, an elder and band councillor, shows to every bureaucrat from Ottawa who comes to see what life is like in the North. It’s where he says his community has had to bury 34 young people who took their own lives over three decades. Quisess is adamant that 25 years without water has done tremendous harm to the community’s mental health — especially among its younger generation. (Locals tell the symbolically tragic story of a girl who killed herself while her parents were out fetching clean water.) It’s a despair that many believe stems from the living conditions, and of the painful sense that they live in a lesser community. Says Quisess: “We live in the Third World. Canada just doesn’t want to admit it.”

People here often hear Canadians in the south say they would be better off if they uprooted their lives and left the reserve. If Casey Moonias were to leave one day, water would be a reason why. That and finishing her education, and living in a bigger home. But attachment to family keeps her in place. She wants her children to be close to their grandparents. Atlookan agrees, saying simply: “I love my home — my reserve.”

There is a sense of hope in Neskantaga. Locals share stories of the land around them and how beautiful life can be. People still trap and fish, as their ancestors did. A group of women snowshoe. Being among the lakes and bushes can relieve stresses and heal spirits, but locals also speak of how these ways are becoming lost to young people, who grow up without water in crowded, mouldy homes and then, when they come of age, leave for the city’s high schools.

For all the years of frustration, anxiety and distrust over Neskantaga’s water, Moonias counts among those who look forward to “the moment.” The family is expecting to move into a new, three-bedroom house come March, around the time the new system is scheduled to begin working. There will be some adjustments, she knows, but when clean water comes back to Neskantaga, it’ll bring her a much-needed moment of joy, and much-needed change to her community. Ashley Sakanee, fresh from lugging in his latest load of water jugs down the road, concurs, saying quietly: “At last.”