Great Britain

‘About damn time’: First Nation gets clean water after 24-year wait

Residents of a First Nations community in Canada, who were deprived of clean drinking water for nearly a quarter of a century, can now drink from their taps after a water treatment facility became fully operational earlier this week.

Shoal Lake 40, a community on the Manitoba-Ontario border, has been under drinking water advisory since 1997.

On Wednesday, residents celebrated the opening of the community’s C$33m (US$26m) water treatment facility.

“It’s unbelievable – and it’s also about damn time,” Vernon Redsky, chief of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, told reporters.

Until recently, the only way to get in or out of the community was across the lake on a summer barge or winter road, making it too expensive to haul in construction material to build a water treatment plant. Plans for a treatment plant were scrapped in 2011 after the federal government balked at the price tag.

In 2019, a 24km (15 mile) all-season road, dubbed the “Freedom Road”, was built, connecting the community to the Trans-Canada highway system – and spurring construction of the new plant.

“It’s the end of years of struggles trying to get the basic necessities of life, clean drinking water,” resident Angelina McLeod told the Canadian Press.

Shoal Lake 40’s inability to access clean drinking water has been one of the longest-running crises in the country – and a source of shame for the federal government, a minister admitted on Wednesday.

“This is not a victory of the federal government, this is a victory of the community,” Marc Miller, the country’s Indigenous services minister, said at the event.

For generations Canada has been unwilling to guarantee access to clean water for Indigenous peoples, and supplies in dozens of communities are considered unsafe to drink.

“It’s unacceptable in a country that is financially one of the most wealthy in the world, and water rich, and the reality is that many communities don’t have access to clean water,” Miller told the Guardian in an interview earlier this year.

Justin Trudeau said his government was still committed to ending long-term boil water advisories, a promise the Liberals first made during the 2015 election campaign.

“Indigenous people who have lived on that land for generations and millennia can’t drink the water. We’re fixing that,” the prime minister said on Wednesday.

Data from the federal government show there are still 51 long-term drinking water advisories in 32 communities. A total of 109 advisories have been lifted since November 2015.

In early August, the federal government reached a C$8bn settlement in two class-action lawsuits with First Nations communities over access to clean drinking water.

The agreement promises to compensate residents, ensure drinking water infrastructure is built and modernize legislation – something First Nations leaders have been demanding for decades.

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