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Public health emergency

'Maybe we'll have to call in the army'

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IT'S time to call a public health emergency in Island Lake, says Manitoba Grand Chief Ron Evans.

"We need to be able to do more, like declare a state of emergency that these communities should be a priority, especially for the coming winter... I haven't seen any plans as to how we're going to take advantage of the short winter-road season that'll be coming upon us."

If the winter is so warm that ice roads to Island Lake cannot open this year to get in more plumbing supplies, "Maybe we'll have to call in the army," Evans said. "It's going to lead up to that if nothing's done."

Since 2001, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada has spent $55 million to bring tap water and flush toilets to about half the Island Lake region's 10,000 people.

St. Theresa Point expects funding to expand water services over the next few years and Wasagamack has a $5.5-million water and sewer project slated for 2014-15.

However, even after all that work is done, many homes in Island Lake's four First Nations still won't have running water.

In the meantime, an emergency system is urgently needed to deliver enough clean water to meet the United Nations' health recommendation of 50 litres a day per person. Many residents get by on less than the 15 litres a day recommended in disaster zones.

Overflowing outhouses and latrine buckets also need to be replaced with more sanitary options, such as the plastic portable toilets used at construction sites from which sewage can be picked up by truck.

Indian and Northern Affairs Minister John Duncan is more accustomed to pleas from communities with contaminated water than from reserves with decent water, but half the homes don't even have plumbing. He was surprised to hear from the Free Press that in St. Theresa Point, the band delivers water buckets only to elders.

The minister said his government can't catch up overnight after previous governments' neglect, but his department would consider temporary solutions such as trucking more water to homes.

If Duncan doesn't act quickly enough, Evans wants NDP Premier Greg Selinger to step in.

Before Manitobans think about what it will cost to bring running water to Island Lake homes, the grand chief wants them to think about what it will cost not to do it.

"When we encounter another epidemic, it's going to be devastating," he said, remembering last year's H1N1 flu outbreak that forced dangerously ill Island Lake residents to be airlifted to Winnipeg, including one young woman who died.

Evans wants provincial health officials to declare a state of emergency in Island Lake, ship in supplies to provide a decent standard of water and sanitation to the neglected parts of each community, then send the bill to Ottawa, based on the federal government's treaty obligations.

Manitoba Deputy Premier Eric Robinson knows exactly what it's like to grow up without running water.

"I still have a slop-pail ring around my ass after all these years. And I don't forget my upbringing," he said.

He said his government would consider kicking in cash to help improve water and sewer services in Island Lake because of the health impact. The federal government is responsible for funding reserve infrastructure, but people who get sick from lack of wash water often end up in provincial hospitals.

"I think we have to put aside the boundaries and the jurisdictional disputes, that every once in a while pop up, and do something creative," Robinson said. "Our door has always been open to facilitate such dialogue to correct some of the urgent situations."

Anna Fontaine, Manitoba's regional director general for Indian and Northern Affairs, also grew up on a Manitoba First Nation. "I feel for these communities," she said of Island Lake.

A couple of years ago, she took her minister up to Garden Hill and Red Sucker Lake to see the shocking conditions first-hand.

"One of my pet projects to really push here was to try and get their water treatment plant in, and we were able to start it last year and are working on it again this year."

However, she has to juggle the needs of all 63 Manitoba First Nations and the multiple priorities of each First Nation.

Indian and Northern Affairs has identified priority First Nations across Canada for water and sewer funding based on its assessment of health risks. However, Island Lake and other First Nations with little running water don't crack the list because it's based on the quality of water and sewer plants, and doesn't take into account water distribution.

Fontaine said she would be open to making homes without plumbing the top priority for housing retrofits if Manitoba chiefs agree.

"It's not something we've specifically looked at, but certainly something we'd be willing to."

National Chief Shawn Atleo, who visited Island Lake not long after the H1N1 flu outbreak, said Indian and Northern Affairs needs to pick up the pace on funding basic plumbing.

"People are suffering," he said. "We're talking about a life-or-death situation."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 4, 2010 A3

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