After three evacuations in less than two years, an E.coli contamination in their drinking water and rampant mould in the community’s homes, the Cree community of Kashechewan on Ontario’s James Bay coast is in a downhill spiral.
A 20-year-old man took his own life January 7 and a disproportionate number of suicide attempts and suicide pacts have followed as the youth try to cope with an uncertain future.
The community is currently reviewing a comprehensive report authored by Alan Pope, who was appointed by Ottawa as the Special Representative of the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.
The report’s recommendations include moving the community near Timmins, Ontario, and address a host of other dire needs.
Kashechewan chief Jonathan Solomon, in turn, hired Dr. Emily Jane Faries to study the situation at the local level through community consultations to give residents a chance to voice their opinions and concerns about the future of their community.
Unlike the Pope report, which suggests five different new locations for the community, Dr. Faries left it up to the community to decide where they wanted to move.
Chief Solomon was elected in part due to his promise that the community could choose where to move; as opposed to former Chief Leo Friday’s “fait accompli” that would have seen him and his council choose the location.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty and instability in the community,” said Solomon. “The youth are reacting to the situation which first started in October 2005 when the community was evacuated because of the water contamination.”
Solomon painted a bleak picture of despair.
“We’ve lost two of our people who died in a fire while under the protection of the police along with a girl in a house fire two months later. There was also a homicide this past summer in the community,” he said. “All these things are causing a lot of stress.”
The 40-page Pope Report included alarming findings such as:• There is currently no fire truck in the community;• A three-metre-high ring dyke that surrounds the community needs upgrading to the tune of $430,000. According to a report released in 2005, “The dyke deficiencies could result in failure during flood/ice jam events”;• Members of the Kashechewan First Nation are denied services locally if they are not registered band members or don’t have an Ontario Health Insurance Plan -something the report calls “unacceptable”;• In spite of work done on the sewage system and lagoon, a significant threat remains of overflow or backup along East Creek and effecting Red Willow Creek, which are immediately upstream of the water treatment plant intake;• St. Andrew’s Elementary is closed indefinitely because of health and safety concerns, site contamination and vandalism. As a result, student attendance was halved and high school students feel alienated as they must share a building with elementary kids and start class at 3 pm.
The report also stresses that “the traditional lands on the Kashechewan First Nation will not remain what they are today.”
When asked for comment from Indian Affairs spokesperson Deirdra McCracken was not very forthcoming. “We are committed to finding a solution for the community,” she said. “We’ve had our representative present his report and now we’re awaiting the community’s response as to what their decision will be as to what their future will be.” Political divisions are adding to the woes of the community. Solomon said that Health Canada is not publicly acknowledging the dangers faced by Kashechewan.
“I think Health Canada has to come and live in the community to actually experience what the pressures are,” said Chief Solomon. “I think it’s unfair for them to make a judgment call while they’re sitting in an office in Ottawa. They aren’t helping the problem by arguing with the numbers.”
In January, Health Canada reported 10 cases that were considered either attempted suicide or ideations of suicides; that is, people talked openly about killing themselves, according to Health Canada Spokesman Al Gorman.
“I don’t want to dispute with the chief on that,” said Gorman. “The number 10 is simply the number of cases that present themselves at the nursing station for clinical assessment.
“With three evacuations in the last two years, there will of course be social disruption, that’s just common sense,” Gorman continued. “So what we’re doing is trying to assist the community in dealing with that through funding we provide to it and to some of the other service providers, in particular the Anishinaabe-Aski Nation and the Weeneebeg health authority.” Edward Sutherland, the Director of Kashechewan Health Services, urged the government to send more counsellors to give at-risk youth one-on-one counselling.
“More [suicidal] incidents started happening after the first evacuation,” Sutherland noted. “When Andy Scott went on CTV and announced that Kash would be relocated, the youth were hopeful. When the Conservatives came in and almost scrapped the idea, that’s when a lot of youth got frustrated and depressed. They had highs hopes and they believed that it would happen.”
Although the E.coli infection in the water supply is considered under control, Solomon said that many of the 1,550 residents are still afraid to use it.
“There have been a lot of major upgrades on the system,” he said. “The boil-water advisory was lifted in July. But there are still people who don’t trust the water and who don’t feel confident in it. I don’t blame them. The community was very fortunate that we didn’t lose any lives. There were people who got really sick.”
Dr. Faries’ report is due February 26. Solomon said that once he has it, he wants a meeting with Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice shortly thereafter.
“I’m looking forward to the report because it will be the voice of the people, it’s not going to be the voice of the chief or council,” said Solomon.
“The community has to take the bull by the horns. There’s going to be a lot of political rhetoric but in the meantime our young people continue to suffer the consequences because of that rhetoric.”
Solomon said a 2005 report on the dyke situation affirmed that something has to be done. Released by Klohn Crippen, the report stated: “The areas of transverse cracks should be repaired before the next anticipated high water. The worst areas may only require removal of the gravel shell and reconstruction of the core, other areas may only require stripping of the shell and filling of the settled core area to restore serviceability.”
Ottawa followed up with its own study and concurred with the findings, although they stopped short up until this point of committing money to repair the dyke.
In April of last year, residents had to be rescued by helicopter as the dyke overflowed. The community fears a repeat this spring.
Solomon said that a backlog of 300 homes in the community has created more stress. “There are houses where there are more than 20 people,” he said.
At least four families still live in feeble tent frames set up by the Conservative government after the evacuation last summer.
“We’re caught between a rock and a hard place here,” said Solomon. “Because of the uncertainty of our situation the government doesn’t want to invest millions of dollars into a community that is doing a study to determine their future. That’s been thrown in our face when we try to address these issues. They say, ‘We cannot commit to anything until we know what the future entails.’ That begs the question of how long they see this continuing. How many years do we have to wait and in the meantime what are we going to do?”
Solomon said that the government has been saying it could take 10 years to move everyone to the new community. He puts a more reasonable estimate at five, saying that any longer than that and there might not be a community to relocate.
“Are we going to continue living in a time bomb for the next 10 years? The answer is no. There will be many more problems and lives lost if a solution is not forthcoming – and fast.”