Water is Life: Stand with Neskantaga

This story first appeared in the April issue of “Global Heroes” magazine: read it here. To support Neskantaga, donate to RAVEN: https://fundraise.raventrust.com/neskantaga

It’s winter. It’s cold, and you’re cooking dinner for your family. 

Imagine if, instead of turning on the tap, you had to load buckets into your truck, head a mile to a small, outhouse-like building, and wait in line to fill them? 

Now imagine that you’ve lived without tap water for the past 25 years. 

That’s the story of Neskantaga First Nation. They live in one of the more remote — and spectacular — parts of northern Ontario, on the shores of Attawapiskat Lake. It’s a region ironically rich in freshwater and possibly the largest intact boreal forest remaining in the world.  But, because of government neglect and mismanagement, the community has recently passed a grim milestone: it’s been 9500 days without clean water flowing to the 357 people that call this place home. 

Last November, the community was evacuated due to dangerously high levels of contamination that saw children break out in skin infections from contact with tap water. It was the second such exodus in just over a year. 

Despite the water crisis, planning for a massive mining development known as the  “Ring of Fire” is underway. The project requires a new all-season  road through Neskantaga territory. With the community reeling from the twin crises of Covid-19 and lack of clean water, the Ontario government is pushing ahead, setting tight deadlines that effectively prevent the struggling Neskantaga leadership from meaningfully expressing their concerns over threats to their lands, waters and way of life that will come with opening up the region. 

The Ring of Fire is located within Ontario’s vast  expanse of soggy muskeg and peat bogs, dotted with black spruce, jack pine and white birch. It’s a globally significant wetland, and a massive carbon storehouse believed to annually sequester the equivalent of one-third of Ontario’s total carbon emissions. 

With Premier Doug Ford proclaiming: “If I have to hop on that bulldozer myself … we’re going to start building the roads,” the community is understandably cynical about the government’s commitment to consult in good faith. “Good faith,” in this case, means at the very least not pressuring the community with impossible deadlines in the middle of a pandemic.. “Good faith” consultation also means providing space for Neskantaga to determine whether mining aligns with Nestakanga members’ rights and stewardship responsibility to these lands and waters they have cared for and called home for millennia. 

Now, leaders in this small Anishinaabe community are saying, “Enough.” 

They are headed to court to challenge the government for failing to fulfil its duty to consult and accommodate in a way that respects and honours the community’s own Anishinaabe protocols for making decisions of this magnitude. The case also argues that the main north-south mining road being built to the “Ring of Fire” is a major industrial access road that will fragment intact boreal ecosystems and bisect Neskantaga territory. The Neskantaga allege that by fragmenting the road project into sections, the government is trying to sidestep due process by making each portion seem insignificant, when in fact the full road will have massive repercussions.

“We believe it is our duty to protect the Attawapiskat river watershed,” says former Chief Wayne Moonias. McFaulds Lake, the site of a proposed mining development area, is connected to the Attawapiskat river. The watershed provides Neskantaga families with summer to winter fishing. Says Moonias, “We harvest many fish; each spring and fall we hunt geese. People from my community also use the land all throughout our traditional territory. We hunt and trap and gather plants and medicines. Our territory sustains us.”

While the Neskantaga community struggles, there IS a place along the Attawapiskat River that has enjoyed an uninterrupted flow of clean water: the DeBeers’ Victor Diamond Mine. It is a stark inequality, and an indictment of the politics of neglect that continue to impoverish First Nations in Treaty 9.

Says Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, “This continued water crisis goes beyond boiling contaminated water. The bigger issue is that people’s basic fundamental human rights are being contravened and continually ignored.” 

Is the health crisis in Neskantaga providing cover for mining proponents?  Riley Yesno, a research fellow at Yellowhead Institute and a member of Eabametoong Nation – also impacted by the Ring of Fire – believes so. 
“This weaponization of the health crisis that is happening in these communities is a way to get desired projects put through. While they don’t want to be overburdened with other things while they’re suffering, I don’t know one community leader who would  forfeit [the] right to proper consultation to free, prior and informed consent.”

While hundreds of millions of dollars are being mustered for complex mining infrastructure,  the stewards of the lands and waters of this boreal region have been persistently denied the basic necessities of life. All the while, the community is under pressure to hurriedly greenlight development that will forever change the Neskantaga way of life. In response, the community is turning to the courts to demand due process, as part of a broader vision to restore the integrity of the entire Attawapiskat River watershed.

The Neskantaga are standing up for their rights: the right to safe drinking water, and the right to determine their own futures on their homelands.

Legal challenges are expensive: that’s why RAVEN (Respecting Aboriginal Values and Environmental Needs) is joining forces with Neskantaga to fundraise for this important case. The goal? To raise $100,000 to help the community access justice and to protect precious intact boreal forests. 

To support Neskantaga, donate to RAVEN: https://fundraise.raventrust.com/neskantaga

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