Building trust in its tap water will be Neskantaga’s next big challenge

The chief of the First Nation in Northern Ontario that has suffered through the country’s longest continuous boil water advisory is hopeful that water coming out of the taps in the homes of Neskantaga will be safe to drink sometime in early 2021.

The question now is: Even if public health and First Nation officials pronounce the water safe to drink, will anyone trust in the purity of what comes out of their taps?

“If we’re able to get clean water here, I’m still not going to trust myself to drink the tap water because I’ve been growing up drinking water bottles and stuff like that,” 22-year-old Geoffrey Quisses said in an interview Friday near his home on Neskantaga First Nation. Quisses is three years younger than the 25-year-old continuous boil water advisory in force on the First Nation.

Quisses was one of about 240 community members who returned to their homes Friday after spending 60 days living in motels in Thunder Bay, Ont., 450 kilometres away from their homes. Most community members were evacuated in October after an oily substance appeared in water in the reservoir that feeds the community’s drinking water system.

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Work has been done on the water system and public health officials say the water being produced at the plant is, technically, safe to drink — free of any bacteria or other substances that cause illness. And yet, the boil water advisory remains in place until some engineering and operational changes can be made to the plant and water distribution system.

“The result of the 14-day performance test tells us that we’re able to run the plant without any interruptions and the water plant can run 24 hours a day. After the bacteriological test, there’s no bacteria or any diseases in the water. It’s much cleaner than what we’ve had the last 25 years. We’re very close,” Neskantaga First Nation Chief Christopher Moonias told a television news crew that travelled to the fly-in community Friday to witness the return of evacuees.

“It’s not clean enough to drink. I just got the report. The test and boil water advisory is still being recommended, but we are getting very close to getting that lifted. Hopefully, that will happen next year,” Chief Moonias said.

“We’re just going to have to go with it, I guess until we’re told it’s ok to drink,” Hilda Moonias said moments after getting off the plane that brought her and her daughter Anastasia back to their homes Friday.  “Christmas is here and we need to be home.”

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And yet, while engineers might be able to provide a fix to the water system, Chief Moonias concedes finding a fix to the community’s trust in their water supply could be a tougher challenge to overcome.

“The community people will not trust the water,” Chief Moonias said. “I know that for a fact because when we were in Thunder Bay, they drank bottled water when we were there and that’s one of the biggest things. We need to work on the trauma that they faced over 25 years —  the mental health aspects, to start building that trust with our nation members that we have clean drinking water.”

Charla Moonias prepares tea in the kitchen in her home on Nesktanaga First Nation, Ont. on December 19, 2020. Moonias said she’s frustrated at delay in resolving the 25-year boil water advisory in her community.

Charla Moonias prepares tea in the kitchen in her home on Nesktanaga First Nation, Ont. on December 19, 2020. Moonias said she’s frustrated at delay in resolving the 25-year boil water advisory in her community.

Olivia Stefanovich / TV POOL

Charla Moonias, the chief’s 23-year-old adopted daughter, was happy to be back in her own kitchen — boiling water, as usual. She, too, has never known a time in Neskantaga when the tap water was safe.

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“It’s traumatizing growing up without drinking from the tap. It’s really traumatizing. And like all our youth, they’re going to grow up scared to drink from the tap,” Charla Moonias said.

And even though there appears to be a path to making that drinking water safe, Charla said the 25-year-old boil water advisory will remain as a bitter memory, a testament to what many in the community perceive as the systemic racism of a society that would let an Indigenous community exist for so long without clean drinking water.

“I can only be as patient as I can. I’m very frustrated and I just, I don’t know … ,” she said. “Sometimes I just feel like losing hope. Like, what’s the point? Are we supposed to live like this our whole lives? Is this what they expect from us? Are they trying to still assimilate us and keep us on reserves? Are they punishing us? I don’t know.”

“Why did it take a quarter century to fix it or longer? Why?” said Chief Moonias. “What does that say about our country? This is something that needs to be fixed.”

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