Four hundred residents of a northern Manitoba native community are marching 650 kilometres to Winnipeg to protest contaminated drinking water in their village.

About 850 residents of Pukatawagan had to flee their community July 9 and 10 after nine people got hepatitis from drinking unclear water.

“It’s a disgrace to Canada for people to have to endure this kind of abuse,” said Chief Ralph Caribou of the Mathias Columb First Nation.

Chief Caribou was the one who initiated the evacuation after a 9-year-old boy was found to have hepatitis. Manitoba’s chief medical officer, John Guilfoyle, declared a public health emergency in the area June 29 after deciding that the sewage content of the water could kill people.

In addition to the hepatitis, residents have also reported severe skin rashes from bathing in the polluted water from the Churchill River.

A sewage outlet is located 400 metres upstream from the community’s water intake.

Meanwhile, the Chief of the Red Sucker Lake reserve, also in northern Manitoba, said the drinking water there

is as bad as in Pukatawagan. Almost half of the 600 residents of Red Sucker Lake are suffering from vomiting and diarrhea. Numerous calls for help to Ottawa have gone unanswered, said the Chief.

The federal Indian Affairs department disputes that there is an emergency in the area.

“While there is a problem, the situation is not as extreme as the provincial interpretation,” a department spokesman told Canadian Press.

The evacuees from Pukatawagan are now staying in The Pas, where they are being hosted by the Opaskawayak Cree Nation.

More than 700 people will remain in Pukatawagan because they are too old or sick to leave.

About half the evacuees, including Chief Caribou, planned a protest march from The Pas to Winnipeg, a journey that could take several weeks.

The Chief wants Ottawa to release $11 million in funds to clean up the water supply.