Neskantaga First Nation Engages with Minister and Chiefs

INAC Minister Bennett, Chief Moonias, NAN Grand Chief Fiddler, AFN National Chief Bellegarde at Neskantaga FN Water Plant
INAC Minister Bennett, Chief Moonias, NAN Grand Chief Fiddler, AFN National Chief Bellegarde at Neskantaga FN Water Plant

Minister Bennett Tours Neskantaga First Nation

NESKANTAGA FIRST NATION – The issues of water, housing, roads, and youth are key to ensuring success in the Northwestern Ontario First Nation of Neskantaga. Friday, the community welcomed the Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Carolyn Bennett, the Assembly of First Nations National Chief Bellegarde, and Nishnaebe-Aski Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler to the community.

“This important day we are undertaking. It is good to see the Minister, the National Chief and the NAN Grand Chief here to see some of the social and other conditions facing our community”.

The community faces a lot of challenges. On Friday the community came together for a public meeting to share concerns, seek solutions, and to listen. The messages of frustration and angst over the problems were expressed.

There was also a feeling of hope. Nishnawbe-Aski Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler states that he feels hopeful. That hope comes from the strength and resilience expressed by the people. Even though some of the people expressed stories that were not at first based on good things, there was a message that once problems start to be solved that there will be a domino effect and other problems will be solved.

The strength of the people of Neskantaga First Nation, like the people in First Nation communities across Canada is one where shared resilience is being tempered by hope that under the new federal government issues that have been going on for generations will be solved.

For Charla Moonias, an eighteen-year-old who addressed the meeting, her hope is that the community will solve its issues with water. Moonias believes that solving that issue will be the impetus for building a pattern of success that will continue.

Despite the hope expressed and sought, there were strong examples provided that the community faces a lot of work as well.

Home in Neskantaga abandoned after mood took over
Home in Neskantaga abandoned after mood took over

Homes in the community have been impacted seriously from mold, from sewage back-ups, as well as flooding. Some homes are literally falling in on themselves, as water damages to basements are forcing the walls inward.

Some homes which are still occupied, but the families staying in them are living in fear as the basements continue to crack. The problem is that while the basements have a concrete floor, but wooden walls which can not withstand the heaving caused in winter by frost.

The impact of mold in some homes have people living in what could be only called potentially dangerous conditions. The design of the homes, which don’t properly breathe in the winter is causing the problems.

The simple act of getting a drink of water from a tap is unknown in Neskantaga. The community has been under a boil water for twenty-two years. “That is completely unacceptable in Canada,” stated Chief Moonias.

“We got a commitment from the minister to move forward on our water treatment plant to move forward this year, but that will not solve the issues of clean drinking water,” added Chief Moonias.

The issue of the boil water order was raised repeatedly throughout the day. The water in the community is not only unsafe to drink, but it is also equally unsafe for bathing. Using water requires a 10-minute rolling boil to make it safe for bathing or other household uses.

Like Attawapiskat and other northern communities, suicide is an issue of major concern.

The impact on youth is very strong, young people are seeing others in their peer groups becoming depressed. Suicide epidemics seem to happen. Former Chief Moonias spoke to the audience about losing two of his children to suicide.

The issue of depression and mental health comes from the recovery process of residential schools.

“When we were losing our youth to suicides, we had to call state of emergencies, today it is still difficult to get the necessary resources. Today the government calls us and asks when are you going to end that state of emergency you called in 2013”.

“The conditions remain the same, said the Chief. “We had a suicide just before Christmas, nothing has changed yet”.

“We have to resolve the human rights violations that happen in our communities”.

Offering solutions, the youth met the Minister at the airport with signs. Those signs expressed the hopes of the youth for what they are seeking in their community.

A youth centre, an arena, safe water, mental health facilities were some of the ideas presented.

Hockey keeps youth busy in a positive activity. The ice rink in Neskantaga is melting. In summer ball hockey takes over.

“Our arena has been just a shell for 15 years,” said the Chief. “The community has been under intervention for 16 years. That intervention policy, enforced by the government at a cost of over $2 million has not worked.

Under the co-management system a First Nation placed under the restrictions has to pay for the outside manager. The costs are often very high, and in the opinion of the Neskantage leadership have been a factor in holding back the community.

“We have not built homes in our community for years, it is something we have to address”.

“This new relationship with Prime Minister Trudeau has to have action. Talk doesn’t go anywhere,” continued the Chief. “If there is no change, our community will remain in third world conditions. We are all Anishinawbe people. We all have rights. We are supposed to share in the benefits”.

“We are the biggest taxpayers in this country because of the fact that the resources that are taken out of our land… we get nothing,” charged Chief Moonias. “First Nations have to be equal partners so we can sustain our own communities. We can improve the quality of life in our communities.”

Speaking to the community members, Minister Bennett stated that when the children met her at the airport, the sign that made her the happiest was one that states, “Hope for Our Future”.

The real test for the Minister and for the Government of Canada will be how the campaign promises and budget promises come to action for the community.

Community Discussion

Health issues: The Minister and the Chiefs were told, “A complex for the Elders needs to be built here so we do not have to send the Elders out of the communities.

“Those elders are left feeling very lonely. Their diet is changed; they are unable to eat the traditional foods that they want. This impacts their health, and increases their feelings of despair.”

Charla Moonias addresses community meeting in Neskantaga FN
Charla Moonias addresses community meeting in Neskantaga FN

Youth: Asking youth at the community meeting, what they would like, the one answer was a Youth Centre. A place with computers, games, a pool table, and a safe place.

Charla Moonias stated that she had to leave her home, and her community. “I didn’t think I could ever graduate from grade twelve. Drug abuse, thoughts of suicide, drove me from my home.”

“I paid for a plane ticket, and I just left”.

“There just are not many resources here. There are just not that many people here who I can trust. We need support systems, activities, homes, I have friends who don’t have great living conditions, don’t have transportation, their homes are full of mould.”

“Last summer I was only here for two months, in a month, I started to get rashes, blisters, all from the water”.

“We all need a little push”. I don’t even know my traditional ways, I don’t know how to cook moose meat, don’t know how to properly cut up a fish”.

“It’s hard, when I am out there, I miss my home, when I miss my home, I turn to alcohol. I want to live my traditional ways, I miss my home, I end up with a bottle in my hands”.

“It is hard being out there, it is hard living in stranger’s houses, and living under their rules, it is hard”.

“No one wants to leave their home they want to be here.”

“Drugs and alcohol are a big issue; I don’t want it to be an issue no more. When I come here, I stay sober. It is such a good place. But here, there is depression, which makes you want to leave, and when you are out there it is drinking. There are so many students out there trying hard, but there is that thing [alcohol] calling their name… they need to be educated more.”

“When you are depressed and you drink, it doesn’t solve anything. That is when suicidal thoughts come. No matter how good my life is, there is still depression. We need to learn how to deal with depression. I can control it, but it is not easy. It is the hardest thing I ever have to do in my life… there are so many times I have fought suicidal thoughts.”

“I am eighteen now, and I have never drank from a tap… this place gives me flashbacks, I remember the youth we have lost, I see youth fighting. Seven or even six year olds already know about suicide. The children feel that pain; they notice”.

“We need support systems”.

Internet Speed a Huge Issue for Youth and Community

One of the biggest concerns for many youth is that Internet speed in the community. Netflix is according to the youth a virtual impossibility unless you are the only one online.

Media attempting to upload news stories in Neskantaga were struggling to get a connection. That according to community members is community normal case.

The Internet in Neskantaga is extremely slow. That restricts opportunities for education and for entertainment too
The Internet in Neskantaga is extremely slow. That restricts opportunities for education and for entertainment too

Education: Parents expressed their concerns in sending their teenagers out of the community in order to attend high school. Concerns over the safety of their children who have to leave home for school as early as fourteen years of age is a serious concern.

On Friday night, youth in the community were enjoying the spring weather and the evening’s festivities. The community feast was a highlight of the night.

Friday night for youth in Neskantaga

While the warmer weather is welcome, this winter which was unseasonably warm will lead to problems for northern communities. The Winter Roads were not able to operate at full capacity. For Nesktanga the weather meant a slower start to getting going on the ice roads. It was mid January before transport trucks could start driving the winter roads, and then only at a half load level. It took another five weeks before the transports could get to a three-quarters load level. That means a lot of materials that normally come in by winter road will either have to wait, or be shipped in by air.

Energy prices in the community are one of those factors in the high cost of living. Fuel is over $2 per litre.

The price of groceries is, to quote one of the residents, “crazy”. The Northern Store, the only retail outlet in the community has prices that for people in southern Ontario and most major cities would cause people to riot in the streets.

A bag of milk is $15.49 – that compares to less than $5 in Thunder Bay. A box of spaghetti that would be about $2 in Thunder Bay is $7 – a small ham runs at $27. Even balonie is expensive with a price tag of $12 compared to $4 in Thunder Bay. A loaf of Wonder Bread hits the $7 but was on sale for $5.

While a bag of Old Dutch Chips runs at what seems expensive in Thunder Bay at $3 that same pack of chips is $7 plus in the Northern Store.

While the easiest thing to do would be to blame the Northern Store, the high prices are a reflection of high energy costs. All of the electric power in the community comes from diesel generators. The cost for a retailer in the north to heat the store, keep the refrigeration going, power the freezers and in summer run the air conditioning all add up.

Fresh produce in the north is very expensive. A major part of that cost is the shorter shelf lives of many fresh items. While $12 for a pint of fresh strawberries might seem extreme, the in store shelf live is actually quite short. The consumer is paying for the waste that the retailer is likely to experience.

It could perhaps be understood after witnessing many of the challenges and problems that people would be angry. Instead overall, the mood of the meeting was more of a call to action, with a quiet but solid determination that it is time to get things done.

Part One… to be continued…

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