The beleaguered community of Kashechewan on the western coast of James Bay has been hard-hit by a recent water crisis and has been promised a new community by the befuddled federal government.
Indian Affairs Minister Andy Scott announced October 27 that the federal government plans to build 50 new houses a year to help fix what has become Canada’s own Third-World story. The project is slated to take 10 years.
“It was hard to believe, but I think it’s going to happen,” Kashechewan Chief Leo Friday told CTV’s Canada AM. “Sometimes, a tragedy has to happen before action is taken. But I think everything is falling into place.”
Many of the 1,700 residents have been suffering for years with various skin diseases and deformities caused by E. coli in their water system while the government turned a blind eye.
Residents complain of scabies, chronic diarrhea, fevers and headaches and blame it on the poor quality of their water supply.
The federal government has been criticized in its failure to address a problem that has been known for at least two years when community members were advised to boil their water by Health Canada.
Band council members said that there was no one properly trained to run the current water treatment plant, but that situation is going to change. Scott announced that there will be a temporary, reliable water treatment plant built, more nursing staff, a repaired school and trained water treatment specialists.
Scott also promised that a new subdivision will be built on higher ground along James Bay, away from the lowlands where regular flooding occurs.
Scott was quick to explain why it took the government so long to react. “We met with the leadership from the community in August. They did a very good job of explaining (the problems). That’s when I was determined we were not going to have these quick fix, band aid solutions.”
“We had to get them out of the dyke. That’s what we’ve been working on since August and the community is now finally once and for all going to live the way the rest of Canada lives and that’s the right thing for these people.”
Scott said evacuating a community is a long process. But Kashechewan has been under the boil-water advisory from Health Canada for two years and that explanation is not good enough for some.
“I’ve lived here 17 years, and the water has been coming out of the taps brown most of the time that I’ve lived here,” teacher Lisa Feltmate told Canada AM. “It used to come straight from the river. The water plant that INAC (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada) has given this town is totally unacceptable. It’s not safe.”
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine praised the recent federal government response package that included upgrading the community school, upgrading health care services and other infrastructure until Kashechewan can be relocated to a safer area along the coast.
“They deserve the best and I believe the agreement that was struck will provide the community with all they are entitled to: safe drinking water, excellent education facilities, good quality health care, decent housing – all of the things that people in the south take for granted.”