The band council of Kashechewan Cree territory on the west coast of James Bay has urged the evacuation of the community of 1,900 after chronic contamination of the water supply reached crisis levels.

“It’s not tolerable,” said Deputy Chief Rebecca Friday, after declaring an emergency evacuation October 18. “It’s not acceptable.”

But evacuation plans were called off later in the day after Indian Affairs delivered bottled water and informed band leaders it would not pay for an evacuation.

For years, the community has battled skin infections and chronic illness blamed on poor water quality. Conditions range from scabies to gastrointestinal disorders, headaches and fevers.

The reserve has been under a Health Canada boil-water advisory for more than two years. An already bad situation turned into a full-blown crisis in early October when federal officials warned that high levels of E. coli had been detected in the drinking water.

The bacteria can be especially dangerous for children, the elderly and the already sick.

A water treatment plant funded by Indian Affairs was built 10 years ago – just downstream from an existing sewage lagoon. Contaminants flow past the intake pipe that feeds water into the plant to be treated for drinking.

Band leaders say they have never received proper training or enough funding to run a complex system that requires 24-hour maintenance.

Water specialists hired by Indian Affairs are now in the community assessing the situation.

Indian Affairs has spent more than $250,000 since last April flying bottled water into Kashechewan. It also spent $500,000 last year to upgrade the plant but didn’t move the intake pipe.