Kashechewan is only a drop in the bucket

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Hands up if you had heard about the problems facing the aboriginal community of Kashechewan before last week. Let’s see… that’s one, two… any others? (This interactive column-writing thing is clearly going to take more work.)

Those who didn’t put up their hand would definitely be in the majority. Despite the fact that the aboriginal community, located on the western shore of James Bay, has had water problems for over two years, few people outside of the immediate area had heard about it. As John McGrath, CBC Radio’s Queen’s Park reporter, noted sheepishly last week, “Until a problem comes to Queen’s Park, we in the Press Gallery tend to ignore it.”

I started hearing about the crisis in “Kash” – which, it must be noted, is much much wider than just a water quality issue – more than three months ago. That’s when I first heard NDP Member of Parliament Charlie Angus speaking about it. Angus was first elected at the end of June 2004 and was the first MP for the area to actually visit the community. This summer, he took party leader Jack Layton with him, making Layton the first federal leader to see the problems first hand. Since then, Layton has been nearly as vocal as Angus in demanding action

Angus has been absolutely relentless in trying to get the federal government to pay attention to the situation. In July, he met with Indian Affairs Minister Andy Scott and said, “For the last dozen years, the federal government has treated the James Bay coast with a culture of indifference… The housing and infrastructure crisis in Kashechewan is a national shame.” Angus finally succeeded last week when he and his provincial counterpart, NDP Member of Provincial Parliament Gilles Bisson, arranged for leaders from the community to hold a press conference at Queen’s Park. Canadians hearing about the issue for the first time were shocked to find out that:

a.. Kashechewan (which, ironicly, means “flowing water” in Cree) has been under a boil-water advisory for two years. What is supposed to be drinking water is reportedly brown and filled with sediment. Incredibly, the intake pipe for the water treatment plant (built just over a decade ago) is just 135 metres downstream from a sewage lagoon. As a result, sewage goes directly into the water-filtration system.
b.. Three weeks ago, after the water first tested positive for E. coli bacteria, the federal government finally began bringing in bottled tap water from Cochrane. They insisted that the water was still safe for bathing.
c.. Murray Trusler, a doctor who visited the community two weeks ago, reported that many of the children he treated are infected with scabies, a parasite, impetigo, a skin infection caused by bacteria, and also suffering from chronic diarrhea. He also warned that they risked contracting gastroenteritis and recommended that everyone in the community be vaccinated for Hepatitis A and B.

Of course, unlike the average Canadian, neither the federal nor the provincial governments can say that they did not know. It’s almost as if they needed to be asked by a reporter before they could respond (with the province beginning to temporarily evacuate the community and the federal government promising to rebuild it in a better location). And, late as the response was in coming, the actions of the provincial and federal government last week were definitely welcome.

Even more welcome is the fact that action is coming in spite of the fact that neither side has been able to come to grips with how to solve the jurisdictional question. In fact, if anything, that difference of opinion was actually exacerbated last week, as Premier McGuinty lashed out at Ottawa for being “missing in action” on this file. He’s right, of course, but that doesn’t explain why it took so long for his government to realize that it had the authority to act on its own. Stan Louttit, grand chief for the Mushkegowuk Council, which includes Kashechewan, told reporters the province should have acted years ago. “Why did it have to come to this? We're residents of Ontario.”

The bigger issue is that Kashechewan is just one of over one hundred aboriginal communities across Canada (fifty-one in Ontario alone) that currently have to boil the water that comes out of their taps. Dr. Trusler notes that the report of the Walkerton inquiry identified severe problems with the water on many reserves, describing it as some of “the poorest quality tap water in the province”.

Surely we have not become so jaded and uncaring that we will allow such situations to exist anywhere in Canada. After Kashechewan has disappeared from the headlines again, let’s make sure that we continue to ask questions and demand answers. We don’t want to let the bold promises of last week be forgotten, while people in the community continue to struggle with chronic health conditions. And, let’s ensure that the solutions promised do not apply only to the one aboriginal community that had both an MP and an MPP who cared. Hands up if you’re with me on this.

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