Third World problems in a First World country


By Xavier Kataquapit

Bad water in Attawapiskat is an old problem. Ever since the water treatment plant was put in place and the source determined at a little lake away from a fast flowing river there have been problems.

How did we end up with water that is making people in my hometown sick? After all, Attawapiskat is located in some of the most pristine wilderness lands in the entire country yet we have never really had satisfactory water and sewage systems.

When I was a boy growing up in the community I recall very well how terrible the living conditions were. Most of the community households had no indoor plumbing so no running water or sewage. We had to use an outhouse as our toilet and that got very nasty considering that many households had large families.

In the winter when it was 40 degrees below zero it was no easy task to rush out to the outhouse, 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 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 and sewage systems in our homes until the early 1990s. Before that we had to put up with terrible conditions and there were ditches in town that ended up with sewage in them, 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 decades ago.

When I was a boy and a teen 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.

The crazy thing about all of this is, until the early 1990s,  we were very much living in Third World conditions right here in Canada while non-Native towns and cities were enjoying clean running water and state of the art sewage systems.

The rest of Canada had been doing so for a hundred years or so. 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.

Charlie Angus, Member of Parliament for Timmins–James Bay, and Federal Minister of Indigenous Services Seamus O'Regan visited Attawapiskat and met with the leadership and community members. Charlie is very well acquainted with life on our First Nations in the area as he regularly visits and has been a true advocate for Native people in the north. His visit resulted in the decision by Minister Seamus O'Regan to fly in to the community with his assistants to see first hand the situation.

As a result, the minister has made a commitment to constructing a new water plant and also determining another source of fresh water. That is good news, but really, 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 any non-Native community in Canada.

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 byproducts 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.

Meegwetch to Charlie Angus and to Minister O’Regan for doing the right thing and visiting the community to see first-hand how terrible the water situation is. At this point a team is on the ground and determining the best way forward and how to best solve the problem in the short- and then long-term.

One thing for sure with a local election coming up in Attawapiskat and of course the federal election in the fall, people should think long and hard about what party is going to best serve them when it comes to helping First Nations.

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 (NDP) 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 such a wonderful country like Canada, that should not be too much to ask.