A tweet from Environment Minister Catherine McKenna praising Ottawa’s world-ranking tap water hit a sore spot for residents of a First Nation community facing an ongoing water crisis.
A day after McKenna posted her tweet, residents of Attawapiskat First Nation, an isolated community in northern Ontario, were called in for an emergency meeting.
Band council told them to severely limit their water use because of the presence of trihalomethanes (THM), a chemical byproduct from chlorine used to disinfect the water.
“I felt angry and upset,” said musician Adrian Sutherland, who lives in Attawapiskat, about seeing the tweet.
“This is not something to be proud and to be cheering about, especially when there are thousands of Indigenous Canadians that don’t even have clean water to bathe in, let alone drink.”
Sutherland responded to McKenna on Twitter with a photo of himself in a gas mask, holding a reusable bottle filled with Attawapiskat’s undrinkable tap water.
“We’ve never been able to drink water from the taps here ever since day one,” Sutherland, who grew up on the reserve, told HuffPost Canada in an interview. “Everyone collects their drinking water from the dispensaries.”
People in Attawapiskat rely on reverse osmosis water treatment plants, which they refer to as dispensaries.
“That tweet for me was like a slap in the face,” said Chelsea Jane Edwards, who challenged McKenna to spend some time in Attawapiskat.
Through the years, Edwards left Attawapiskat on-and-off for school, but as a new mother, she’s returned home with her partner and baby.
“I always knew I wanted to raise my son on the reserve, to go back to our roots and to have ties to the community,” she said. “But now it’s become very challenging.”
Edwards, 23, was “really frustrated” when she saw McKenna’s tweet.
“It must be nice to have drinking water that you can get straight from the tap,” she said. “Meanwhile, we have to go to the water treatment plant to go fill up a jug and then bring it home.”
Residents in Attawapiskat can’t drink water straight out of the tap because of the presence of THM. The community was placed on a boil water advisory from June 22 to July 2.
They have to trek to two dispensaries for drinking water.
“It’s a hassle. Even the dispensaries are in really rough shape too; they don’t look right, they don’t smell right,” said Sutherland.
“When you walk in, it looks like hell.”
From 2017: One man’s mission to bring clean drinking water to First Nations. Story continues below.
Like most Attawapiskat residents, both Sutherland and Edwards grew up knowing their water was not good. The idea was so ingrained in Edwards that even when she lived in cities, she didn’t drink tap water because she was “taught” to avoid it.
While the toxicity of the water has been an ongoing reality that doesn’t shock residents, what did catch everyone’s attention at the emergency meeting on Friday was that THM levels were on the rise.
“These levels have continuously been rising,” said Sutherland. “Now the levels are being found in the drinking water.”
What is THM?
Trihalomethanes are a chemical byproduct that forms when chlorine, which is used to disinfect water, mixes with naturally occurring organic material also in the water.
Boil water advisories, which are already enacted in 58 First Nations communities, are ineffective in situations with THM, because the root cause is a chemical problem, not a bacterial one.
High levels of THM lead to skin irritation and increase the risk of cancer.
Attawapiskat has been dealing with levels of THM that exceed federal guidelines for years. In 2007, Health Canada told residents to not drink tap water and reduce shower times.
At Friday’s emergency meeting, residents were told that THM levels had continued to rise and they now needed to limit showers, avoid rinsing their food with the tap water, and to even avoid opening windows because THMs can get into the air from running water.
When they do take showers, they were advised they should be cold ones, since there’s a higher presence of THM in hot water.
“I haven’t bathed for a few days,” said Sutherland. “People are scared to even drink the water from the dispensary.”
Edwards said she doesn’t trust using dispensary water to make her son’s formula. She uses bottled water from the store, but sometimes they’re out of stock.
Facing backlash for the tweet, McKenna responded on Twitter saying she should have been more “clear.”
“While it’d be great if everyone could trade their plastic water bottles for reusable ones, not every community has clean drinking water so easily accessible,” she posted on Sunday evening. “That’s absolutely unacceptable, I agree.”
A plan was presented at the emergency meeting by Rod Peters, an engineer from consultancy firm WSP Canada. The long-term repairs to Attawapiskat’s water treatment plan would cost $9.5 million and take a minimum of four years, depending on funding approvals, he said.
A federal health official is scheduled to visit the community this month, a spokesman for Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan told CBC News.
Kevin Deagle called it a “top priority” for the department, adding that $1.4 million has been invested into Attawapiskat’s water system since 2018.
Edwards is not holding her breath: “I’m not sure if things are going to be done within five years.”
She said her partner, who is not from Attawapiskat, would laugh when she bathed her son in drinking water, but taking that “precaution” was very important to her. If Edward’s baby needs to go to the hospital because of health complications, they would have to be airlifted out of the isolated community.
Sutherland, 43, isn’t risking bathing his kids in tap water either. He says his family is thinking about drawing water from the river, so they can bathe and do dishes.
“It’s like going back to the dark ages and we’re in Canada. I just don’t get it.”
He added: “For this to be acceptable in the minds of our politicians in this country, it’s just completely disgusting.”
“Urban cities, I feel like they live in this bubble. They always, always forget about the communities that are in their backyard who are struggling.”
Leaving is not an option for Sutherland, who’s family is deeply rooted in the community. Like many in Attawapiskat, the area is “all they know.”
“They grew up on the land, raised the Cree way, so for them to leave the area would just be completely absurd. I wouldn’t ask that of anyone.”
Edwards would love to have her son “grow up with his family,” but with the increasing lack of services, she isn’t sure about their future in Attawapiskat.
“Urban cities, I feel like they live in this bubble,” she said. “They always, always forget about the communities that are in their backyard who are struggling.”