With the deadline just a week away, the law firm representing victims of unsafe drinking water in First Nation communities is urging those who qualify to file their claims for long-awaited compensation. 

After a years-long battle, the federal government opened the First Nations drinking-water settlement process in 2022, offering compensation to First Nations that have suffered for long periods under drinking-water advisories. 

“The settlement is about providing a new dawn for First Nations people on reserve who’ve gone too long without regular access to clean, safe drinking water.” said Darian Baskatawang, an Associate with Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP and Class Counsel for the First Nations Drinking Water Class Action Settlement.

This settlement compensates those affected by a lack of clean drinking water in First Nation communities between Nov. 20,1995, and June 20, 2021.

The legal fight began in 2019, when two separate lawsuits were filed against the federal government: one by Curve Lake First Nation and Neskantaga First Nation, both from Ontario, in the Federal Court of Canada, and the second by Tataskweyak Cree Nation in Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench, concerning prolonged drinking-water advisories on First Nations reserves across the country. 

Now the settlement is for all First Nations across the country.

The $8-billion settlement deal covers 142,000 individuals from 258 First Nations who could be compensated, along with 120 First Nations communities.

Nine out of 10 of the individuals eligible have submitted their claim for the settlement, Baskatawang said. That leaves 10 per cent of eligible claimants who still haven’t submitted a claim.

Eligible First Nation communities and individuals now have until March 7, 2024, to submit, after receiving a year extension. 

a lawyer from Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP poses for a photo with Patty Hajdu, the  Minister of Indigenous Services of Canada.
Lawyer Darian Baskatawang (left) meets with Patty Hajdu, Canada’s minister of Indigenous services, at an event in Ottawa marking the 29th anniversary of Neskantaga First Nation’s boil water advisory where the federal government pledged support for a new water treatment plant. (Submitted by Darian Baskatawang)

“One of the biggest wins as part of the settlement is that it provides legal commitments on a few issues to make sure that drinking water advisories come to the close and never happen again.” Baskatawang said.

“The settlement has within it legal commitments to fund what it actually costs to provide clean, safe drinking water in communities.”

Hopes to soon lift boil-water advisories

Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek otherwise known as Gull Bay First Nation is one of those communities receiving compensation. 

The reserve has contended with a long-running boil-water advisory first put in place in 1998. 

Now, Gull Bay First Nation is finally in the process of lifting that advisory. Wilfred King is the long-standing chief of Gull Bay First Nation.

He says a new drinking water treatment plant will make a huge difference for his community. The long-term maintenance of the new facility will be a priority for the community, and federal compensation funds could help to ensure it provides pristine water far into the future. 

a photo of the new water treatment facility in Gull Bay First Nation/ Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek.
A new water treatment plant has been built in Gull Bay First Nation. (Photo submitted by Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek )

King said he’s grateful to the First Nations that led the legal fight for the settlement. 

“I really take my hat off to those communities that took legal action because I think without the legal action we would have probably been still in this lobbying effort. In many communities, if you don’t have that lobbying effort, you’ll be just put on the back burner.” King said.

Work remains to rebuild trust

Neskantaga First Nation, which has been under a drinking water advisory for longer than any other community, will also receive compensation under the agreement.

While chief and council have not decided how to use the compensation funds, like Gull Bay, Neskantaga has been fighting for a new water treatment facility, rather than upgrades to its current non-functioning water treatment plant. 

Years of living without safe water have left deep scars on the community, said Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias. 

Even when members of his community visit a big city, he said, they are often unable to trust what comes out of the taps. 

“Even for myself, I have to go buy water because we are so used to living under a boil water advisory,” said Chief Moonias. “And when I visited my daughter there’s cases of water in her house.”

This is one of the residual effects of living or growing up under a boil water advisory. 

A man sits at a desk.
Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias sits in his office in 2020, the year that marked the 25th anniversary of the community’s water crisis. The water bottle shows clean water, while the sample is from Neskantaga’s water supply. (Marc Doucette/CBC)

On February 1st, Neskantaga marked the 29th anniversary of its boil-water advisory. At the event Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu committed to the design of a new water treatment plant for Neskantaga.

Chief Chris Moonias of Neskantaga hopes that in the next couple of weeks he can get a commitment in writing. 

“It’s hard being optimistic,” Chief Moonias said, after so many years of promises that a new treatment plant is in the works. 

It will take time and work, he said, for community members to rebuild trust in both the government, and the water, even if a new facility is built. 

“I just remind myself you know that I’m doing this for the people,” said Chief Moonias.

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