Angus calls ongoing Indigenous water quality issues 'apartheid'
New Democrat MP Charlie Angus says the failure of the federal government to properly address water quality concerns in Far North Indigenous communities amounts “institutionalized apartheid.”
Angus visited Attawapiskat First Nation in his northern Ontario riding last week after it declared a state of emergency over high levels of the disinfectant chemical byproducts trihalomethanes (THMs) and haloacetic acids (HAAs) in its tap water.
The tap water has been undrinkable for about a decade. Local people are now being warned to avoid long showers, cut back on washing dishes, and not to boil water which could emit harmful chemicals into the air.
Angus told CTV News Channel on Monday that he was “horrified” by what he saw on the reserve.
“We saw this beautiful young girl who’s got only one kidney… she needs fresh water. She’s living in basically a homeless shelter,” he said in a phone interview from Belleville, Ont.
“One woman said, ‘I don’t like to bathe my child because she gets nosebleeds,’” he added.
Angus urged Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan to fix the problem, which Angus said is the result of “constant underfunding of reserves.”
“He’s talking about consolations and finding out,” Angus said of the Liberal minister. “There’s a report sitting on his desk that says the steps that need to be taken and the cost to that is about $12 to $15 million.”
O'Regan visited the reserve in northern Ontario on Sunday and said Ottawa would send medical teams later this week.
He spoke with CTV News Channel on Monday to detail efforts to address immediate and long-term plans.
“Right now they are frightened. Anybody in Canada can relate, when you are frightened of your water supply, that is very real,” said O'Regan, who spent hours with community members Sunday taking questions and laying out an action plan based on their concerns.
In addition to medical teams to assess children and adults with health concerns, Ottawa will bring in technicians to begin immediate work, which would include essentially flushing the entire water system, he said. The federal government says that $1.5 million has been approved for immediate repairs to the reserve's existing water treatment plan and that clean drinking water is available from a second system. Ottawa may begin planning for a new water treatment centre altogether, he added, but talks will be ongoing with members of the First Nation.
“We are immediately going to sit down with the community for a comprehensive community plan,” he said. “Should we be looking for another water source and if so then let’s commit to building a new water treatment centre when we know we have a new and better water source identified.”
Attawapiskat Chief Ignace Gull said that, while there is a lot of work to be done before the community reaches a long-term solution with a functioning water treatment centre, he is hopeful. “I am very optimistic that we can work with the Minister,” he told CTV News Channel on Monday. “It’s an ageing infrastructure that’s old and crumbling… There’s going to be a lot of work that needs to be done to address everything that affects the immediate crisis right now.”
The minister told CTV News Channel that he hears the complaints that short-term efforts are considered “Band-Aid solutions” to some.
“The feeling was that if we started work on the $1.5 million improvements to the water treatment centre as it is, that we were satisfied with them. I assured them that we are not satisfied with that,” he said, adding long-term solutions would begin immediately too.
“That was the commitment I made to them. It was not either or. That we would begin both at the same time.”
“Any Canadian who is not from Attawapiskat who visits there is deeply humbled by what they see. It’s not something that you expect to see or should see in Canada,” said O’Regan. “We need to build up the trust in the water supply.”