Bad water in Attawapiskat, my hometown, is an old problem. Ever since the water treatment plant was built with its supply from a small lake away from a fast-flowing river there have been problems. How did we end up with water that makes people sick? After all, Attawapiskat is located in some of the most pristine wilderness in the entire country, yet we have never really had satisfactory water and sewage systems.
I remember how terrible the living conditions were when I was growing there. Most of the community had no indoor plumbing. We used outhouses that got very nasty considering that many households had large families. In the winter when it was -40º it was no easy task to rush out to the outhouse to do one’s business and then race back to the warm house. It was normal for every household to have a honey bucket which was basically a large pail with a seat on it where that we would use as a portable toilet in the house and then empty it into the outhouse the next morning.
We had no running water or sewage systems in our homes until the early 1990s. Before that there were ditches in town that filled with raw sewage which was a dangerous health hazard. Due to some strange decisions on where to draw from a water source and the design and construction of the water treatment plant and its ongoing maintenance challenges, Attawapiskat is right back where it started from decades ago.
When I was young, I helped to draw water from the river. Every day, winter and summer, we would take large drums down to the river, fill them and then return them home for cooking, tea and bathing. In the winter of course this was a much more difficult chore, but it had to be done. By the way that water was good in terms of clarity and satisfying our needs.
By the 1990s, the rest of Canada had enjoyed indoor plumbing for almost a century. That seems to me to be an unfair situation if not downright racist.
Recently, Attawapiskat community members have been bringing the drastic situation of the water crisis to the media and to political leaders. The local Chief and Council have held some meetings and there have been protests.
It had to take a declaration of a state of emergency by Chief and Council to get the attention of the government. That happened because tests showed high levels of trihalomethanes (THMs) and haloacetic acids (HAAs) in the drinking water. These conditions have to do with by-products produced by adding a lot of disinfectants such as chlorine to water. The water certainly has become contaminated and people are complaining of disease and skin conditions as a result of this situation. It may cause cancer.
Charlie Angus, the MP for Timmins–James Bay, and Seamus O’Regan, federal Minister of Indigenous Services, visited Attawapiskat and met with the leadership and community members. Charlie is well acquainted with life in our community as he regularly visits and has been a true advocate for Native people in the north. His visit resulted in the decision by Minister O’Regan to fly into the community with his assistants to see the situation firsthand. As a result, he committed to constructing a new water plant and to find another source of fresh water.
That is good news, but did my family and friends have to put up with many years in this situation just because nobody in the government cared enough to do anything about it? That is ridiculous and it would never be tolerated in a non-Native community in Canada.
Meegwetch to Charlie Angus and to Minister O’Regan for doing the right thing and visiting the community to see firsthand how terrible the water situation is. At this point a team is on the ground and determining how to best solve the problem. One thing for sure with a local election coming up in Attawapiskat and the federal election in October, people should think long and hard about what party is going to best serve them.
We know through experience that Justin Trudeau and the Liberals have been generally supportive and have worked with Indigenous people of this country to improve things over the past few years. The New Democratic Party has always been advocating for First Nations and that has to be taken into account and appreciated. It is up to all of us to make sure we elect people that improve the lives of our Elders and our children. We need to continue on a path of creating employment opportunities and making sure First Nations have access to clean water, proper sewage systems, decent housing and safe communities. In a country like Canada, that should not be too much to ask.