Evacuees home for the holidays.
After spending more than a month away from home, the last evacuees from Kashechewan First Nation were expected to be back in the community in time for Christmas.
About 1,000 of Kashechewan's 1900 residents were flown out the community at the end of October after Ontario's minister of Aboriginal Affairs, David Ramsay, declared a medical emergency on the First Nation. Earlier in the month, routine tests done by Health Canada had detected elevated levels of E.coli in the water supply.
The problem that caused the contamination has been rectified, said Susan Bertrand, acting manager of media relations and operations with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) in Thunder Bay, although the boil water advisory community members have been living under since 2003 is still in effect.
"The water treatment plant has been producing clean and safe water since Oct. 17 with acceptable levels of turbidity and zero presence Of E.coli," Bertrand said. "The boil water advisory is remaining in effect as a precautionary measure until repairs to the system are completed. One of the things that they need to do is to flush the lines and that can't be done right now because of frozen fire hydrants."
Upgrades to the plant are underway, and had already begun when the contamination problems occurred in October, Bertrand said. "The upgrade will bring the plant into compliance with the province of Ontario drinking water standards."
Northern Waterworks, a company based in Red Lake that specializes in water and wastewater treatment, is currently overseeing operation of the plant and will be providing training to First Nation operators to upgrade their skills and knowledge regarding plant operation, Bertrand said.
Emergency repairs within homes in Kashechewan have already completed and, once the winter road opens up, INAC will be bringing in trailers to provide temporary accommodation for the families living in the 60 homes that require extensive renovations.
Repairs are also being done to Kashechewan's elementary school and high school. Mould is being removed from both schools, and repairs to the heating system and sprinkler system are being done at the elementary school.
"We're anticipating having both schools open by the time school reconvenes in January," Bertrand said.
In addition to the work already being done, the federal government has promised to build new houses and to improve health and social services available to Kashechewan residents.
"The people of Kashechewan have had to endure deplorable living conditions for many, many years and the federal and provincial government officials have known about it for many, many years. So this particular situation has deteriorated over the years as a result of underfunding for First Nations for infrastructure and training and a lack of co-ordination between the federal and provincial government," said Angus Toulouse, Assembly of First Nation (AFN) Regional Chief for Ontario. "I guess from my perspective ... it's going to take Kashechewan many years to rebuilt and restore their families and, not only that, the community well-being. And there's just so many First Nation communities in Ontario, and no doubt across Canada, that live in the same kind of deplorable conditions."
It's estimated there are about 37 First Nations in Ontario currently under boil water advisories, and close to 100 across the country, Angus Toulouse said.
Although the situation is somewhat stabilized in Kashechewan and news about the living conditions on First Nations has fallen off the front page, Toulouse hopes the problems won't be forgotten by the Canadian people.
"Just because this was front page and headline news some time ago, Canadians in general shouldn't forget about or relinquish their outrage with regard to the plight of the First Nation communities across Ontario and across this country."
He also hopes the commitment the provincial and federal governments showed in their handling of the crisis in Kashechewan will extend to other First Nations as well, because the problems that exist can't be fixed by addressing them in just one community.
"We're not going away, so I don't' think the situation is going away" Toulouse said. "I think the federal and provincial governments are really, again, way out to lunch if they think doing this one community is going to resolve First Nation issues and concerns."
The need for infrastructure improvements in First Nation communities across Ontario is quite significant, Toulouse said, but a lasting solution to problems like those experienced in Kashechewan needs more than just an influx of government money to repair schools, houses and water treatment plants. What are also needed, he said, are some fundamental changes in the relationship between First Nations and federal and provincial governments. Recognition of First Nations governments and allowing First Nations to share in the revenues earned from resources taken from their traditional territories would go a long way toward closing the gap between First Nations and the rest of the country, he said.
These types of changes in relationship are included in the First Nations-Federal Crown Political Accord on the Recognition and Implementation of First Nations Governments, finalized in May during a meeting between Prime Minister Paul Martin, key cabinet ministers, AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine and a number of AFN officials. An implementation plan designed to help meet the objectives of the accord was developed at the First Ministers and National Aboriginal Leaders Meeting held in Kelowna, B.C. in November.
"Talks about the responsible and long-term action by federal and provincial government leaders really has to start with talking and sitting down with First Nation leaders. We're part of the solution and yet there seems to be this whole government bureaucracy that believes that only they can provide the solutions without talking to First Nation leadership," he said. "We're sick and tired. We've been there, done that, for many, many years. And I think First Nation leadership throughout the province and this country, I think, are saying, let's talk about this new relationship, since they keep talking about it, but not the status quo. Not what we've seen for the past 100 and some years ... nothing's really changed. But to sit down and talk about the jurisdictions and talk about the rights we have, I think, are part of the solution to a lot of the crises that we've seen in Kashechewan and in many other communities."
BY CHERYL PETTEN