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A First Nation’s epic wait for clean water gets longer

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Residents of the Neskantaga First Nation, an Oji-Cree community about 450 km north of Thunder Bay, Ont., have lived without clean, safe drinking water from their taps for the past 25 years—it’s the longest-lasting boil water advisory among First Nations in Canada. The community expected a new water treatment facility to be completed by March. Now their long wait to have their advisory lifted will be even longer.

On Wednesday, Neskantaga’s chief and council terminated its contract with Kingdom Construction Limited (KCL), a company based in Ayr, Ont., while also passing a band council resolution to banish the workers from the northern community.

At a press conference held on the First Nation, Chief Wayne Moonias cited frustration with construction delays. He noted that May 30, 2018 was the water system’s original expected date of completion, but, “as of today, we are about eight and a half months behind” with “no clear end in sight.”

“Our First Nation believes that this is the best decision that will enable us to move forward and ultimately provide clean, safe and reliable drinking water to our community,” Chief Moonias said.

The community plans to take over the project and will seek an independent review of the infrastructure, and from there it will determine who will be awarded the contract to complete the work.

READ MORE: Not a drop to drink

Featured in a Maclean’s article earlier this year, Neskantaga’s water crisis offers an extreme look at what daily life is like trapped under a long-term advisory; where locals rely on purified water from a nearby reverse osmosis machine that regularly breaks down or freezes; and where other issues like mould-ridden homes and a youth suicide crisis compound an already pressing concern for the people who live there. “It’s hard boiling water all the time, and sometimes I’m tired of it,” Gloria Atlookan, the community health representative at the local clinic, told Maclean’s.

Chief Moonias said Wednesday that people in Neskantaga “have exhausted their support for the reverse osmosis unit that was put in as an interim measure,” adding that Indigenous Services Canada needs to decommission the filtered machine and provide the community an unlimited supply of bottled water.

Casey Moonias, a 26-year-old mother of three, has never turned on the tap in her community and drunk from it. She refuses to wash her toddler son, Meeson, in the community’s tap water. Nor does she ever consumer it. Instead, her family fetches jugs of water from the reverse osmosis machine several times per week. Residents in Neskantaga have frequently cited an itchiness on their skin that can last more than an hour after showering, as well as rashes and infections that they believe are caused by something in the water. Like others in the community, Casey is forced into ration-bathing. “I try not to get any in my mouth or open my eyes,” she said.

Neskantaga’s contaminated water is the result of a treatment facility that was built incorrectly in the early 1990s. Ottawa has provided more than $500,000 to the community to pay for bottled water since the advisory was issued.

The deprivation of drinkable water appears to be one force driving people away from the community—even if they want to stay. Roughly half of the First Nation’s registered population now lives in centres like Thunder Bay and Sioux Lookout, Ont.

RELATED: Money alone won’t solve the water crisis in Indigenous communities

The delay is an enormous symbolic setback for a government that’s trying to make good on an election promise to end all boil-water advisories on reserves by March 2021—an initiative seen as a keystone of Trudeau’s renewed relationship with First Nations. (Ottawa has lifted 78 long-term drinking-water advisories since 2015, and 62 remain.)

Speaking to Maclean’s last December, former Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott said the construction crew on the ground in Neskantaga was applying the finishing touches. Around this time, Chief Moonias voiced concerns about construction delays. The community’s water operator Wilfred Sakanee shared the same skepticism, describing the progress as “very, very, very slow.”

Wednesday’s announcement marks further tension between Ottawa and Neskantaga, and points to the community’s increasing frustration with how the feds are communicating the situation on the ground. In response to the chief’s concerns last November, Anne Scotton, director general for the Ontario region with Indigenous Services Canada, told Maclean’s that Chief Moonias “may have been misinformed” about the timeline of construction.

In a statement on Thursday, Rachel Rappaport, press secretary with the newly appointed minister of Indigenous services, Seamus O’Regan, said the lack of clean drinking water on First Nations like Neskantaga is “unacceptable,” adding that the Trudeau government is “firmly committed to working with the community to complete work on their water infrastructure.”

A statement from departmental officials said Indigenous Services is “working diligently with the First Nation to lift the long-term drinking water advisory and ensure that the community has a reliable water treatment plant that provides safe, clean drinking water and meets the community’s long-term needs.”

Funding for infrastructural projects on reserves comes from Indigenous Services, while the First Nations themselves determine the contractor. Rappaport said that feds’ engagement with selected companies varies on a “case-by-case basis” and by the “needs of the community.” In the case of Neskantaga, according to the department, the feds committed $8.8 million for the new plant and system back in July 2017.

For now, it’s unclear whether the fallout could result in legal ramifications between Neskantaga and Kingdom Construction Limited. Reached on Thursday, an official with KCL declined comment, saying the company would issue a statement in a week or so. Rappaport said questions about why the company was asked to leave should go to the First Nation.

On Thursday, Chief Moonias directed questions about the dispute to the First Nation’s lawyers, who were not immediately available for comment.

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Ottawa sets monthly record for total COVID-19 cases with 99 new cases on Friday

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Sixteen days into October, Ottawa has already set the record for most cases of COVID-19 in a single month.

Ottawa Public Health reported 99 new cases of COVID-19 in Ottawa today, and three more deaths linked to novel coronavirus.

Ontario’s Ministry of Health had reported 108 new cases of COVID-19, but there is sometimes a lag in COVID-19 case reporting between Ontario and Ottawa Public Health. On Wednesday, Ontario reported 39 new cases in Ottawa, while Ottawa Public Health reported 45 new cases.

There have been 1,511 laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Ottawa in October, surpassing the September record of 1,413 new cases.

Since the first case of COVID-19 on March 11, there have been 5,908 laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Ottawa, including 301 deaths.

Across Ontario, there are 712 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday. Health Minister Christine Elliott reported 213 new cases in Toronto, 135 in Peel Region and 62 in York Region.

HOSPITALIZATIONS IN OTTAWA

One more person was admitted to an Ottawa hospital with COVID-19 related illnesses on Friday.

Ottawa Public Health reports 47 people are currently in hospital with COVID-19, including eight in the intensive care unit.

ACTIVE CASES OF COVID-19 IN OTTAWA

The number of active cases of COVID-19 increased on Friday.

There are 792 active cases of COVID-19 in Ottawa, up from 777 active cases on Thursday.

A total of 4,806 people have recovered after testing positive for COVID-19.

The number of active cases is the number of total laboratory-confirmed cases minus the numbers of resolved cases and deaths. A case is considered resolved 14 days after known symptom onset or positive test result.

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Ottawa mayor rejects possible return of Ottawa-Gatineau border checkpoints, ‘I really don’t think they work’

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Mayor Jim Watson does not want to see police checkpoints return to the five interprovincial crossings between Ottawa and Gatineau, saying “I really don’t think they work.”

Earlier this week, Gatineau Mayor Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin told the Ottawa Citizen that police checkpoints could return to the Ottawa-Gatineau border at “any time,” with the final decision in the hands of the Quebec Government. Earlier this month, Dr. Brigitte Pinard of the Centre Integre de sante et de services sociaux de l’Outaouais said border checkpoints were “possible,” adding “right now, our message is to limit large gatherings.”

When asked by CTV Morning Live host Leslie Roberts about the possibility of police checkpoints returning to the Ontario-Quebec border, Watson said he did not think they worked back in the spring.

“There were so many gaps when the police were not there, and people just figured out I’ll go at an earlier time or a later time. We saw police officers sticking their heads in the car with no masks, so that was not healthy for those individuals,” said Watson Friday morning.

“It’s a costly expense when our police are stretched already to the limit trying to do the work, to have them set up at five different bridge points potentially 24 hours a day would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars every month and I think the money is better spent.”

On April 1, Gatineau Police and the Surete du Quebec set up checkpoints along the Ottawa-Gatineau border to limit non-essential trips into Gatineau. Gatineau Police estimated the random police checkpoints between April 1 and May 17 cost the service more than $400,000.

Mayor Watson tells CTV Morning Live that the Quebec Government’s decision to move Gatineau into the “red zone” two days after Ontario moved Ottawa to a modified Stage 2 should help.

“We are a close relationship and when things happen in Gatineau there’s often a trickle effect over here and I think the fact that we’re both in the red zone, and Quebec of course is the worst hit province, at least levels the playing field for our restaurants and bars,” said Watson.

“I think in the past what had happened was our restaurants and bars would close and then the ones in Gatineau would stay open, and then people from Ottawa would go over there irresponsibly, in my opinion, and then come back potentially with the virus and spread it here.”

While border checkpoints would limit the non-essential travel across the Ottawa-Gatineau border, Watson says that’s not the way to beat COVID-19.

“The message is very clear, stick to your household. This is not the time to have an AirBNB party or a keg party in your backyard, or have 20 people or 30 people in for an engagement party. I know a lot of these get-togethers are important socially for people and emotionally, but we have to ask people to be reasonable and responsible, and this is not the year to do those kinds of things.”

Roberts asked the mayor if he would have a conversation about border checkpoints with Gatineau’s mayor.

“I had it the first go-around, but at the end of the day I also respect their jurisdiction and their autonomy. It is the province that would have to impose that, not the municipality,” said Watson.

“From our perspective, we don’t think it’s an effective use of resources. We want to continue to get the message across that we can win this battle against COVID-19 if we socially distance, we wear a mask, we actually follow the simple rules that are put forward.”

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Ottawa woman breaks 14-day quarantine rule to work at long-term care home: police

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OTTAWA — A 53-year-old Ottawa woman is facing charges under the federal Quarantine Act after Ottawa police say she failed to self-isolate for 14 days after travelling abroad and returned to work at a long-term care home.

Ottawa Police say information was received indicating that an Ottawa woman had travelled abroad. She returned to Canada on Sept. 26, so she was required under federal law to quarantine for 14 days, until Oct. 9

“The woman decided not to respect this order and went to work on Sept. 30 at a long-term health facility in Ottawa,” police said in a news release. “When management was apprised of the situation, she was immediately sent home. The facility immediately activated mitigating self-isolation and cleaning protocols and informed all persons that had been in contact with the subject.”

Police say none of the residents of the long-term care facility have tested positive for COVID-19 as a result of the woman attending work.

Ottawa police say this is the first person they have charged under the Quarantine Act during the pandemic.

The woman is charged with failing to comply with entry condition under section 58 of the Quarantine Act and cause risk of imminent death or serious bodily harm under section 67 of the Quarantine Act.

The maximum penalty for causing risk of imminent death or serious bodily harm is a $1 million fine and three years in prison. For failing to self-isolate for 14 days, she faces a $750,000 fine and up to six months in jail.

Police did not release the name of the woman, nor where she worked. The woman is due in court on Nov. 24.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson’s office issued a statement following the announcement of the charges.

“Mayor Watson was disturbed to learn about the alleged carelessness of the individual in question. This type of reckless behaviour could have harmed their colleagues, and more importantly, the residents of the long term care home. We must all do our part to limit the spread of COVID-19 in our community.”

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