Evacuation of Kashechewan Reserve an Overreaction

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on November 14, 2005. Partner content is not updated.

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on November 14, 2005. Partner content is not updated.

Evacuation of Kashechewan Reserve an Overreaction

BAD WATER is supposed to be Kashechewan's big problem. At least, that's what made the isolated CREE community of about 1,700 a source of national shame. Pictures of residents with open sores and angry rashes, shown repeatedly in alarming news reports, prompted the Ontario government to order the evacuation of more than 800 of them to Sudbury, Ottawa and a few other towns and cities. The rest stayed behind in their mostly broken-down, mouldy houses on an isolated flood plain beside James Bay. The province's explanation for the emergency airlift: heavy concentrations of chlorine, pumped into the Kashechewan water system last month to clear up dangerous E. coli bacteria, were making the chronic skin conditions suffered by many in the community much worse. "Skin infections and lesions were not healing," said David Ramsay, Ontario's natural resources and Aboriginal affairs minister, "because they were being continually irritated by the high chlorination."

But that justification is disputed. Both the technicians with the private company sent in to fix Kashechewan's water plant and federal officials closely familiar with the situation on the reserve told Maclean's the Ontario government is wrong about the chlorine. Doctors consulted by HEALTH CANADA blame the serious health problems of the community on its long history of overcrowding and squalor, not any recent change in water quality. If their version of the Kashechewan saga is right, then the dramatic decision taken by Ontario Premier Dalton MCGUINTY looks less like a measured response to an immediate health crisis, and more like a calculated bid to cool down a media frenzy.

Either way, the story now sets the stage for a high-profile summit meeting of Prime Minister Paul Martin and the premiers on First Nations policy later this month. The confusion swirling around the Kashechewan crisis, if it was a crisis, should raise questions about the often improvised way Canadian politicians tend to handle Aboriginal issues - and whether governments are ready to seriously address the long-term problems of remote communities when they are not in the news spotlight.

The sudden emergence of Kashechewan as a national disgrace began with a sample of its tap water taken by Health Canada on Oct. 12. It was sent to a lab, where tests detected E. coli bacteria, which can cause severe illness, on Oct. 14. According to Health Canada spokesman Paul Duchesne, federal officials immediately informed the band council. Within a few hours, the department had hired the Red Lake, Ont.-based firm Northern Waterworks Inc. to make repairs. The company chartered a plane, landed in Kashechewan the next morning, and quickly found a broken chlorine injector in the nine-year-old water treatment plant. Fixing it took about four hours. By Oct. 17, water samples showed no more E. coli, according to Chris LeBlanc, the Northern Waterworks field manager sent to Kashechewan.

But the big issue would turn out to be the amount of chlorine LeBlanc's crew used to clear out the bacteria and keep the water E. coli-free from then on. LeBlanc said levels never rose as high as Ontario's maximum standard of four milligrams per litre. For the first three days after the plant was repaired, chlorine levels varied between 2.5 and 3.5 mg per litre. After that, they were brought down to a normal operating level averaging less than 1.7 mg per litre - lower, LeBlanc noted, than typical chlorine concentrations in Timmins, Ont., about 450 km south of Kashechewan. "They are not getting skin rashes and irritations in Timmins," he said. Health Canada officials also say the chlorine stayed within the normal range.

That's far from the account the McGuinty government accepted. A few days after the band began drawing media attention to its water problem, community representatives arrived in Toronto. The key delegate was Dr. Murray Trusler, chief of staff at Weeneebayko General Hospital in Moose Factory, Ont., the nearest hospital to Kashechewan. Trusler had recently seen patients in Kashechewan, and came to Queen's Park armed with a laptop filled with grim images of sick people he had treated. He met with McGuinty and Ramsay on Oct. 25. "Dr. Trusler is the hero in this," Ramsay said. "He gave the presentation on his laptop with the premier sitting right beside him. It was quite shocking, the pictures of the children especially, with these lesions, skin infections, impetigo. Basically they were living in this regime of high chlorine where you'd start to scratch yourself and the whole thing just spreads."

A few hours later, McGuinty announced the evacuation plan. News of the move must have surprised the group of health experts who had been convened by the federal Indian and Northern Affairs Department for a conference call on what to do about Kashechewan just four days earlier. Dr. Michael Green, a professor at Queen's University's medical school who works for the federal government as a consultant, was part of that call. Green has extensive experience in the James Bay region, and has made many visits to Kashechewan. His advice was that an evacution was not necessary on purely medical grounds. He recommended residents continue boiling water - as they had been for years - and that local nurses be vigilant about possible water-related sickness.

But Green stressed in an interview that immediate water worries were never the only issue. He said unrest has been building in Kashechewan for years over awful living conditions and poor health - discontent with far deeper roots than last month's E. coli spike. "Regardless of what you think about the evacuation," he told Maclean's, "the important outcome here is that there's finally some attention to Kashechewan's problems and political will to do something."

By late last week, questions were being raised about whether Kashechewan's delegation to Toronto had played up the water issue to get the attention of politicians who otherwise ignored them. But Ontario's top native leader rejected any suggestion the crisis was intentionally exaggerated. "We're talking about health and safety here," said Grand Chief Stan Beardy of the Chiefs of Ontario, an umbrella group representing the province's reserves. "I have no reason to question Dr. Trusler's opinion." Beardy scoffed at the possibility that journalists and the Ontario government had swallowed a torqued version of the E. coli and chlorine scare. "Do you feel," he said, "that people who are isolated that far north are sophisticated enough to orchestrate a national media campaign?"

While Beardy may doubt the sophistication of Kashechewan's approach, Trusler's laptop show had an effect that many savvy lobbyists might envy. McGuinty pushed ahead with the evacuation, under an agreement that guarantees the federal government will pay for it. (So far, no government officials are estimating the costs, or when Kashechewan residents scattered across Ontario in hotels will go home.) Ottawa soon took its own steps, perhaps to avoid looking frozen while McGuinty appeared so decisive. On Oct. 27, Indian Affairs Minister Andy Scott met with Kashechewan Chief Leo Friday and announced a deal that would see 50 new houses a year for a decade built on a better site somewhere not far from the community's current townsite.

Any help will be welcome. By all accounts, daily life in Kashechewan is intolerable. Many of the houses are in bad shape. Asked about unemployment in his community, Chief Leo Friday reacts by tallying up who has a job. It's a short list. He estimates unemployment at about 85 per cent. Overcrowding is so bad that sleeping in shifts is not uncommon. One recent afternoon when he was in Toronto for talks with the Ontario government, Friday said he called home to try to speak with his cousin, but found he was asleep in the daytime because no bed had been available the previous night. Many of the chronic health problems that plague the reserve - including skin ailments - are attributed largely to cramped living conditions.

Water quality is, beyond dispute, an urgent challenge in many remote reserve communities. Kashechewan was put under a boil water advisory due to cloudiness and sediment in the water (although not the more serious E. coli) back in August 2003. In all, 84 more Canadian reserves have to boil their water to be sure it is safe to drink. The federal auditor general recently reported that most native communities don't have properly trained treatment plant operators. But addressing the water problem, at Kashechewan and elsewhere, hardly gets to the causes of these communities' woes. There are few jobs, and education is often substandard. The cost of living where everything from orange juice to plywood has to be flown or floated in is staggering.

For Kashechewan, the new subdivision promised by Ottawa is the main result so far of all the recent attention. But a few leaders propose a more radical solution. Jonathon Solomon, deputy grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Tribal Council, which represents seven communities in the region, proposes moving Kashechewan much further, close to a bigger community with year-round road access. "We have an opportunity here," said Solomon, who grew up in Kashechewan but now lives in Moose Factory, where the council is based. "I would rather see my home community set up out of isolation, somewhere closer to where you'd have access to everything, maybe just outside of Timmins. Opportunity for kids would be wide open. They would have the chance to get jobs and continue their education."

That vision goes beyond clean water and new houses to real hope. But some other regional Aboriginal leaders doubt the idea will win much local support. Still, as the Prime Minister and premiers prepare to discuss First Nations issues Nov. 24-25 in Kelowna, B.C., any push toward fresh thinking can't hurt. In Kashechewan's case, Ramsay says Ontario would consider Solomon's proposal, as long as it came from the community. "That's something that we could work on, if that's their desire," he said. "I mean, 70 per cent of Aboriginal people are already off-reserve. We have to ask ourselves why they leave." It's a good question. If Kashechewan's story prompts that deeper probing, then the evacuation - whether it really needed to happen or not - might just have been worth it.


Maclean's November 14, 2005