‘You are not forgotten’: Outpouring of support for Neskantaga First Nation

When Dawnie Codina Langschmidt heard the stories of children in a remote northern Ontario First Nation pleading for clean running water, she said she had to do something to make sure they knew they were heard.

“It really touched my heart,” Codina Langschmidt said. “As a mother of an eight-year-old child, you do your very best to give them — not just the basics in life — and this is the basics and I thought, ‘As a community, as Canadian citizens, we have to stand up for the Indigenous community.'”

Neskantaga First Nation, located approximately 450 km north of Thunder Bay, Ont., remains under a 25-year-long boil water advisory — the longest of any First Nation in Canada — due to problems with chlorine levels in the distribution system and concerns over ongoing work to retrofit the plant.

The federal government is funding a $16.5-million upgrade to the plant, but it’s two years overdue.

As people in Neskantaga wait for the advisory to be lifted, they must bring their tap water to a full boil for at least one minute before it’s safe to use for washing produce, cooking and brushing teeth.

Jugs and boxes of water bottles are lined up the community centre of Neskantaga First Nation, which has been under a boil-water advisory for 25 years. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

After learning of the community’s long struggle, Codina Langschmidt turned to Mother Cabrini Catholic School in Etobicoke, Ont., where her child attends classes, and elementary students started a Christmas card campaign across the Toronto Catholic District School Board for the children of Neskantaga First Nation.

“Thinking of you and your family during this holiday season. May you have safe drinking water soon,” wrote Mother Cabrini Grade 4 student Victoria Conazzi.

“You are not forgotten and I’ll be thinking of you this Christmas. Sending love and kindness.”

Elementary students at the Toronto Catholic District School Board sent Christmas cards to youth in Neskantaga after learning they had been evacuated because the community’s running water was shut down. (Submitted by Toronto Catholic District School Board)

Students plan to launch a second letter-writing campaign in the new year addressed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller calling for clean running water for First Nations communities.

The letter campaign is called “We haven’t forgotten you,” said Frank Pio, the school board’s Indigenous education teacher.

“It’s really unfair that they don’t get safe water to drink,” Conazzi said.

‘We had a lot of care, love and support’

Approximately 260 people evacuated Neskantaga in late October after an oily sheen was discovered in the reservoir, forcing the shutdown of running water in the community.  

Members flew to Thunder Bay, where they stayed in a hotel for two months until completion of repairs at their water treatment plant, which is still going through an upgrade to permanently produce drinkable water. 

Students from Toronto Catholic District School Board plan to continue supporting Neskantaga First Nation by launching a letter writing campaign to the federal government in the new year. (Submitted by Toronto Catholic School Board)

Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias said his community has been overwhelmed by messages of support and donations from students, teachers, businesses and organizations from across Canada.

Canadian comedian Brittlestar set up an Amazon wish list, and NDP MP Charlie Angus also launched his own Christmas card campaign for Neskantaga children.

In Thunder Bay, the tattoo shop Red River Trade Company held a fundraising campaign for the community and the Sweet North Bakery dropped off treats at the Victoria Inn Hotel, where members stayed during the evacuation.

“We had a very positive experience,” Moonias said. “We had a lot of care, love and support from the people of Thunder Bay.”

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