By Calvi Leon
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
ONEIDA NATION OF THE THAMES – Canada’s Indigenous services minister made a promise to Oneida Nation of the Thames on Monday, pledging cash to connect the First Nation to a water supply system that would give residents clean drinking water.
“The department and the government of Canada will be able to support this work financially,” Minister Patty Hajdu said in an interview.
“The money is committed, and obviously, this is super important, not only to the Oneida Nation of the Thames but to the federal government in our work to make sure that everybody has access to clean drinking water.”
Oneida, a 6,500-member community about 30 kilometres southwest of London, has been under a boil water advisory since 2019 and intermittently long before then.
The First Nation has proposed a long-term solution, striking an agreement to connect an 18-kilometre pipeline to the Lake Huron Primary Water System that supplies dozens of London-area communities. But the project, estimated to cost between $54 million and $57 million, requires funding from Indigenous Services Canada, the federal department overseeing First Nations water quality.
While Hajdu vowed on Monday to get the job done, she declined to disclose how much money the federal government would earmark.
“Those numbers,” she said of the cost, “will fluctuate as the project design goes through its process. The next steps will be to really refine what that project looks like, how to get the water from the main pipeline through the community . . . and how we do that in a safe way.”
Hajdu’s remarks bring a mix of “optimism and concern,” said Oneida Coun. Brandon Doxtator, who oversees community infrastructure. He worries she missed the mark in understanding that providing access to clean water is more than “a function to the community.”
“What we’re saying is, we’re fighting for our children and elders, our families, so that they can have the basic human right to clean water.”
The proposed pipeline extension is also needed to ensure Oneida has adequate fire services, Doxtator said.
“We don’t have enough fire hydrants in our community. And if there was ever a fire, we would be looking at another serious tragedy in our community,” he said, referring to a 2016 house fire in Oneida that killed a father and his four kids.
The water crisis at Oneida deepened last month when officials declared a state of emergency due to record low water supply after multiple residents reported discoloured tap water.
For community members like Janet Antone, the unaddressed challenges in Oneida have resulted in a way of life that is vastly different from others in Southwestern Ontario.
“It’s all the things that you don’t think about. It’s not just about drinking water,” she said.
“This is the water that some people have to bathe their babies in, and who knows what kind of illnesses or ailments are associated with the water, just from brushing your teeth, washing your face or taking a shower.”
While Antone welcomed Hajdu’s commitment, she questioned why the federal government hasn’t stepped in to tackle the water crisis in First Nations communities sooner.
“Oneida isn’t the only First Nations to be without clean water or access to clean drinking water. So while I’m glad that the pledge has been made, it’s a first of many,” she said.
Long-term drinking advisories are in effect in 29 First Nations communities across Canada, 21 of which are in Ontario. The Liberal government’s vow to eliminate all boil water advisories by 2021 is an “ambitious goal” and “one that people pay close attention to, as they should,” Hajdu said.
She said projects like the one pitched for Oneida are often “complicated” and “take time.”
“We’re committed to finishing this project with Oneida Nation of the Thames. I know that the community (and the people it impacts) have every reason to be impatient . . . I’m sure Canadians across the country can’t fathom not having access to water,” she said.
Oneida leaders are to meet with representatives from Indigenous Services Canada in early February and hope to finalize an agreement for the project within a month, Doxtator said. Once that’s signed, and months of design work is complete, construction that is expected to take up to 18 months can begin, he said.
Meantime, Antone hopes to maintain pressure on the federal government to honour its pledge.
“This fight is not over,” she said. “We’re still operating under Band-Aid solutions, and I don’t think we should let up until everybody in Canada has access to clean and safe drinking water.”
Calvi Leon is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with the LONDON FREE PRESS. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.