04/29/2019 16:36 EDT | Updated 04/30/2019 12:54 EDT

Kashechewan First Nation Has Been Evacuated Every Spring For 17 Years. Leaders Want Action.

The Canadian government has only delivered “delays after delays,” Chief Leo Friday said.

The Canadian Press
Kashechewan First Nation, a Cree nation near James Bay, Ont., has been evacuated because of flooding every spring for 17 years. Leaders and members rallied at Queen's Park Monday to ask for help moving their community to a new location.

TORONTO — Leaders from Kashechewan First Nation are looking to the Ontario government and even foreign ambassadors for support in relocating their community, which they say the federal government has delayed for years.

"Our young people are getting really sick and tired of this," Chief Leo Friday told reporters at Queen's Park Monday.

Kashechewan came into being in 1957, when the Canadian government forcibly relocated Cree families from two islands onto a plain on the banks of the Albany River near James Bay, Ont., according to the book Invisible North. The name "Kashechewan" is the government's misspelling of the Cree word "Keeshechewan," which means "where the water flows fast," the book says.

The Cree nation of 2,500 is currently evacuated because of flooding. Residents have had to leave every spring for 17 years due to flood water, Friday said.

Derek Fox, deputy grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, speaks at Queen's Park on April 29, 2019, surrounded by community leaders, MPPs and members of Kashechewan First Nation.

The federal government hasn't helped Kashechewan the way it helps other flooded communities in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, said Derek Fox, deputy grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), a grand council representing northern Ontario First Nations.

"You see in Ottawa, the response is immediate. They pretty much call in the army to save everyone," Fox said. "For Kashechewan, it's been 17 years."

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He said the government would have acted more quickly if Kashechewan was a non-Native community.

"I sincerely believe that."

The evacuations interrupt children's education and deprive them of the chance to learn their culture, Chief Friday said. He said the regular evacuations have created a sense of desperation that has even led some people to think about suicide.

"The land does a lot of educating," he said. "We miss our ceremonies in the springtime."

Members of Kashechewan First Nation rally outside Queen's Park in Toronto on April 29, 2019.

In a letter to foreign embassies in Ottawa, Friday said the annual evacuation "only adds to the hardship, poverty and despair" that Kashechewan residents already experience.

"I want the world's ambassadors to know that far too many First Peoples continue to suffer from the impacts of colonialism; an abusive Indian Act that spawned an Apartheid similar to that in South Africa; and an indifferent bureaucracy that continues to mismanage billions of dollars annually that are meant to lift our communities out of poverty," he wrote.

"The world needs to know that Canada continues to treat its Original Peoples like second-class citizens living in third world poverty. But we are 'out of sight, out of mind' no longer."

Kashechewan members rallied at Queen's Park Monday and will protest on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday.

Kashechewan Chief Leo Friday speaks at a rally outside Queen's Park in Toronto on April 29, 2019. His community has been evacuated due to springtime flooding for the 17th year in a row.

Friday said he wants Ontario's government to "step in" and help with a relocation plan because Ottawa has only brought them "delays after delays" and "studies after studies."

The provincial government is ready to help Kashechewan, Minister of Indigenous Affairs Greg Rickford told HuffPost Canada Monday.

"We believe that this community should be relocated and we stand ready, willing and able to work with the community-level leadership, with NAN and with the federal government," he said.

"For more than 15, 16 years, different proposals have come before all levels of government including community leadership, and it's time for action."

Feds say provincial land will be transferred

A spokesman for Minister O'Regan told HuffPost that the minister met with Chief Friday on Tuesday.

"This is a difficult time for the community as they evacuate – and we are working with the leadership of Kashechewan First Nation to support them," O'Regan said in a statement provided by spokesman Kevin Deagle.

"In the long term we are working closely with the community to achieve progress on vital aspects of relocation, including the transfer of provincial lands to Canada to be designated as reserve lands, working on an access road to the site, the extension of hydro services, a demographics exercise, and planning and design of the new community."

This story has been updated with comment from Minister Seamus O'Regan's office.

With a file from The Canadian Press

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