BY: ROB HOFFMAN
In 2013, Hamilton, Ontario, spent millions of dollars making repairs to the Woodward Avenue Wastewater Treatment Plant, in response to concerned Royal Botanical Gardens researchers, who noted a severe spike in goldfish released into the Hamilton Harbour. The major concern, it seemed, was for the native fish species being overtaken by the rapidly breading goldfish, a problem that was solved by near immediate repairs, costing millions of dollars to improve water treatment. However, not all issues of water treatment are addressed in a timely manner. Many communities further from the metropolis hustle have felt the sting of underfunded and overlooked water treatment failures. In Kashechewan First Nation to the north, securing rights like drinkable tap-water, clean housing and educational facilities has long fallen to the wayside of Canada’s big-city problems—namely, in this case, goldfish.
The shocking disparity of resources and effort afforded to Canada’s First Nations communities in need of basic human rights became evident in Kashechewan’s recent outbreak of disturbing skin lesions, affecting more than 15 children. The public outcry resulted from a Facebook photo posted by Derek Stephen, a former chief of the Kashechewan First Nation, revealing his niece’s disturbing skin lesions. The First Nations community, deep in the south-west narrow of James Bay, has felt the impact of deplorable water treatment facilities for over a decade. Many, including NDP’s Tom Mulcair, have traced the recent outbreak of skin lesions back to unsafe drinking water. However, according to Health Minister Jane Philpott, the water supply has been tested as recently as “last Tuesday,” expressing confidence that the skin lesions are not due to unsafe drinking water. Philpott refuses to speak on the origins of the condition, citing doctor patient confidentiality, purportedly a concern for the parents who have resorted to sharing the disturbing photos of their children’s condition with national news outlets. Aside from this confusing logic of doctor-patient confidentiality, there are many reasons to be skeptical of Philpott’s claim.
Stephen compares the situation to a similar outbreak in 2005, when skin lesions were last prominent in the region. In 2005, the skin lesions were traced back to an unhealthy increase of chlorine, pumped into the tawny-coloured drinking and bathing water to eliminate bacteria and soaring E. coli levels, resulting from inadequate water-treatment facilities. Josephine Wesley told the CBC that “Half the people in the community are infected with skin rashes, all different kinds,” citing her child’s scabbed and crusted skin condition, demanding their evacuation from the community. Despite Philpott’s reassuring words, the two cases share too many similarities to dismiss water treatment as the cause. In other words: if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…
As reported by APTN, Kashechewan’s water treatment plant is less than practical, built in dangerous proximity to the harsh James Bay swell that erodes and introduces infected water into the pipes. This is nothing unusual for indigenous communities. Some First Nations, like Neskantaga in Northern Ontario, have gone decades without clean water, necessitating that they boil their tap water before drinking or bathing. According to CBC, the Sioux Lookout community in Northern Ontario are experiencing the world’s highest rate of acute rheumatic fever, a potentially fatal inflammatory disease that typically follows a throat infection. This First Nations community suffers 75 times more cases of acute rheumatic fever than the rest of Canada.
Numerous First Nations communities have tirelessly tried to secure a proper medical budget and health-care services to amend the desperate situation. One of the greatest issues facing these communities is a lack of adequate healthcare in conjunction with their remoteness. Stephen recalls for the CBC how the local clinic merely offered aspirin to the infected child. As a result, most children are flown out of the reservation to seek proper medical care in Timmins, Ontario. To give you an idea of the difficulty of travelling from Kashechewan, to Timmins, Google Maps is unable to calculate a route between the two communities, separated by approximately 400 kilometres of bush. Traveling to and from Kashechewan requires a charter plane.
Trudeau is confident that under his leadership the government’s relationship with Canada’s First Nations is about to shift, drastically, for the better. He’s talked about the need to invest in healthcare. “Getting that right means working with respect and in partnership…talking about how we’re going to build a better future together… [to] say how can we work this together and build a brighter future for everyone.” Trudeau told Nikki Fraser in a recent sit-down. On Monday, Trudeau announced that today’s budget will feature “historic investments in First Nations and indigenous Canadians right across the country to begin to make it right as we have not done for so many decades.” But many, including Sol Mamakwa, the health director for the Shibogama First Nations Council, have expressed disgust with the government’s snail-pace and apathy to their growing health concerns. NDP MP Charlie Angus has also expressed his frustration in the untimeliness of Health Canada’s response to the crisis. “it has been over a month since the communities of Treat 9 declared a medical state of emergency.”
The first step to amending First Nations’ atrocious lack of government funding and resources is, as Trudeau has outlined, applying a workable budget. However the true test is how the government allocates these resources. Stephen was right to express frustration with periodic water testing and bandaid-style repairs when the situation clearly demands for a complete uprooting and replacement of infrastructure. Should the new budget offer anything less than a 360 degree renovation of these unacceptable facilities on First Nations territory—like Kashechewan’s obviously irreparable water-treatment system—Trudeau’s new budget will be less historic than reaffirming of Canada’s position in their relationship with First Nations.