Inside Kashechewan

How a community exaggerated its water crisis to tell a more important story of desperate conditions

Photograph by Alexandra Shimo
Photograph by Alexandra Shimo

In 2010, author and broadcaster Alexandra Shimo travelled to the Kashechewan reserve on James Bay in Northern Ontario. She was on assignment for CBC Radio, investigating the story behind the 2005 water crisis. In the following excerpt from Invisible North: The Search for Answers on a Troubled Reserve, she describes what she discovered from those investigations: how the community exaggerated its water crisis to tell a more important story and raise awareness of their desperate conditions.

On the morning of October 14, 2005, there was very little about the day to suggest that it was about to become a national crisis. It was a sleepy Friday. That time of the year is known as niskiskou, Cree for plenty of geese, when the birds nest and rest along the Albany. Several residents, including the water plant’s supervisor, Alfred Wesley, were out in the bush catching a few birds for the winter.

At 1:35 p.m. that day, Health Canada sent Chief Leo Friday a fax that the water was contaminated with E. coli. It was a health concern, but alas, not totally unexpected. The water had been on boil water advisory for the past two years. Sometimes, the water ran clear as an arctic stream, and at others, it was the colour of mud. The plant suffered from the same issue that plagues many First Nations communities. Isaiah Wynne, who manned it officially but did not have a valid water operator’s license, should not have been working there alone, says John Gentile. As a precaution, many already drank bottled water.

As it became increasingly apparent that the skin diseases were not caused by E. coli, the story changed.

That probably would have been the end of it had it not been for the shadow of Walkerton. The water on 75 percent of reserves poses a medium to high risk to human health. On average 4.6 boil water advisories are issued each day.

But the E. coli notice coupled with the memories of what had happened five years earlier in Walkerton, a sleepy southern Ontario town, spurred immediate action. In 2000, seven people had died and twenty-five hundred people had become ill because of bad water. It was a national crisis and should not be allowed to happen again.

On the same day the water tested positive for E. coli, Health Canada called Chris LeBlanc, the field manager at Northern Waterworks. He had a reputation for efficiency and thoroughness. Chartering a plane to Kashechewan, he arrived the next morning and immediately went to work. There were two issues: the water lacked chlorine, the result of a broken chlorine injector found in the nine-year-old treatment plant; and the coagulant chemical aluminum sulfate, which is used to remove discolouration, wasn’t working with the water’s cold temperatures. LeBlanc ordered another coagulating agent, polyaluminum chloride, from neighbouring Fort Albany and Attawapiskat, and it arrived later that day.

Meanwhile the band council, too, was gathering forces. Chief Friday had contacted Lloyd McDonald, the fifty-two-year-old principal of St. Andrew’s elementary school. He was known to be a committed advocate for First Nations, having worked in other schools on northern reserves. On the afternoon of October 14, 2005, he closed the elementary school and the secondary school followed suit. Together, he and Chief Friday formed a core committee to manage the water crisis, which was comprised of Deputy Chief Rebecca Friday, Health Director Edward Sutherland, the crisis coordinator John Koosees, and several teachers, including Carol Laronde. “There were all sorts of discussions but the main one was how to get attention from Health Canada to step in and help,” explained Sutherland. A press release was sent to the media. Kashechewan’s water crisis was first picked up in the Timmins Daily Press on October 18, 2005. In an article on October 19, 2005, the Canadian Press said that Kashechewan residents had long been exposed to dirty water, which was causing “skin infections, gastrointestinal disorders, headaches and fevers.” In an article that day in Yahoo! News, the contaminated water was said to cause “chronic diarrhea and scabies.”

All of the confusion and accusations surrounding the water crisis had as much to do with timing as anything else. Since October 15, LeBlanc had been living inside Kashechewan’s water plant. Tests for E. coli normally take about twenty-eight hours, and so by October 17, according to Health Canada, the water was officially clear of this and other coliform bacteria. The water ran clear, according to LeBlanc, and chlorine levels were also below Ontario’s standard recommended maximum of four milligrams per litre. And the plant was in better shape than it had been in years. LeBlanc told the chief and Kashechewan’s executive director Archie Wesley of these results.

When I asked Elijah Wesley, former acting principal of St. Andrew’s school, whether he knew the water was clean, he said he had heard that rumour from one of the nurses. But he had also heard the contrary, which was reportedly supported by a letter from an “environmental officer.” With the weight of authority of the official document, he chose to believe the government representative, as did many other residents, when interviewed about the crisis five years later.

With the growing press coverage, the Ministry began to fly bottled water to the community. On October 19, 2005, it sent Indian Affairs Minister Andy Scott to the embattled First Nation. The arrival of Scott was a big coup for an impoverished community of 1,800. Most of the dealings between reserves and the ministry involve long distance communication and delays. It is widely believed that this allows the department to have an arm’s-length relationship, and to ignore the ongoing human rights crisis.

This wasn’t the first time that the band council had tried to raise awareness of its social conditions and economic issues. It had gone to the Ministry with its overcrowding issues, poor housing conditions, mould, and flooding. It had asked for help with unemployment, poverty, arson, and overpriced food. It had requested resources to deal with its suicide crisis and the legacy of the residential schools. Whenever it had asked for help, the Ministry had told the band council that it was not possible. The official reason was that it was a matter of money. Ottawa was unprepared to help while the “deficit was too large,” explains former Kashechewan Chief Leo Friday. “They said that, if we wanted more money, we had to show them ‘a financial recovery plan,’ i.e., how we would become financially sustainable as a community. How we would repay them. But we couldn’t do that because they turned down all our plans for employment schemes.”

With Scott’s trip, the community would be able to talk to the Minister directly about how they were trapped. But his arrival also created a problem. A federal minister was flying to town to examine the contaminated water. What was coming out of the taps was clean. Someone, although their identity remains unknown, came up with a solution: river water. Before Scott arrived, some in the community gathered it up in glasses, jars, and bottles, and placed them on the table where the Ministry officials were scheduled to be seated at that evening’s gathering in the school gym. During the meeting with Health Canada and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), Kashechewan’s leadership, and the community, these props were used to great effect: to heighten the drama, several angry residents told the Canadian government officials, “You drink the water.” No one did.

From the transcripts of that meeting, some in the community genuinely thought that the water was still polluted. A rumour had surfaced, which was subsequently reported in the media, that the water intake was located directly downstream from the raw sewage outflow. Although this later turned out to be false, according to documents released by INAC, what was true was the berm that diverted the water waste away from the uptake source had been breeched. If fecal matter was flowing towards the drinking water source, contamination could easily recur, and this was causing genuine anxiety in the community.

And for many, the issue had surpassed water and was symbolic of the delays that they had been forced for years to drink. One after another stood to speak in English or Cree. They demanded better schools, removal of the diesel-contaminated soil underneath their elementary school, which had spilled two years previously but the band didn’t have the tools to clean up. They wanted more housing: there were up to eighteen people living per house, and children were sleeping in shifts. They demanded flooding protection beyond the failing dyke. They wanted better living conditions: the houses were rotting and mouldy, and children were getting sick. “A long time ago, my grandfathers had to leave their hunting grounds,” explained Kashechewan elder William Sutherland. “They gave us a piece of land which is a swamp. My people are tired. My children are tired. My grandkids are tired. They are tired of being kicked around all the time. Remember this—we are people. [You] used to call us human beings.”

Scott listened closely. When the room had quietened, he stood up. “I think that this situation has been neglected for too long and it needs to be fixed. And I want to work with your leadership to figure out the plan to do that. No more band-aid solutions.”

Everyone clapped. That night he left by plane. The community waited.

Over the next few days, there was no mention of any of these demands in the media coverage of the unfolding crisis. Rather than fixing the flooding issue, housing problem, contaminated soil, overpriced food, or unemployment, INAC promised to send in bottled water. It would deliver 43,200 litres to the community by the end of the week.

Worse, media interest in the story began to ebb. There had been an E. coli warning in a remote northern community, resulting in a boil water advisory. It was more common than not. There were 127 other First Nation communities also on boil water advisories, and the story struggled to make it past A7 in the Globe and Mail. In the subsequent days, most newspapers stopped covering it.

As the media interest died down, the community brainstormed about what to do, according to Edward Sutherland. They decided to invite someone to the community who already had a reputation for going the extra mile to help First Nations communities: Murray Trusler, chief of staff at Weeneebayko General Hospital in Moose Factory, Ontario.

On October 21, 2005, Lindsay MacMillan was at home having a few Friday-night beers with friends in her Moose Factory apartment. At about 6:00 p.m., she received a call from Trusler, her supervisor. He wanted a favour, he explained. Had she heard about the water crisis in nearby Kashechewan? And was she prepared to accompany him to check it out?

The next morning, MacMillan, Trusler, and David Bowen flew in on a helicopter and began home visits, looking for symptoms of E. coli.

“The houses were so dirty and dilapidated,” explains MacMillan, who is now a family doctor in Huntsville, Ontario. “I went to one of the homes, and there were about ten kids all under eight, cramped into a tiny home with writing on the walls. The toilet looked like that one in the movie Trainspotting. It was blocked up and there was crap everywhere. It was disgusting, but also really sad.”

The doctors treated the immediate health problems on the reserve, including asthma, diabetes, heart disease, ringworm, scabies, and impetigo. Since the skin problems had been allowed to grow and fester until raw and scabby, they resembled the grotesque diseases found in nineteenth-century medical dictionaries. Photos of these conditions and information from the band council’s press releases started to appear in the national newspapers from October 25, 2005, onwards, with headlines and captions that said, “Deadly E-coli threatens natives, 2,000 on reserve need vaccinations,” and “Mary-Joe, 12, shows hand sores that have developed after washing in tainted tap water.”

Midway through, Trusler flew to Queen’s Park to give media interviews that the community might be infected with Hepatitis A and B from the contaminated water. Vaccinations were urgently needed. Years later, members of Kashechewan’s leadership still talked of him in glowing terms: he gave us “more support” (Edward Sutherland); “he flew in on a helicopter” (John Koosees, true); and “he paid for the trip himself” (John Koosees, although false).

With Trusler in Queen’s Park, MacMillan and Bowen were left to finish the home visits. On her last day in Kashechewan, MacMillan was confronted by two Health Canada representatives who had flown into the community once Trusler’s photographs hit the papers. The man and woman cornered her in a small meeting room. There, she was warned she had caused serious problems by violating protocol. “Health Canada’s representatives completely bawled us out. They slapped our wrists and gave us a talking to and said, ‘You haven’t gone through the proper channels.’ But by then, the pictures had already reached the Globe and Mail.”

Today, there’s more of an understanding among different First Nations about how public interest in human rights can be used to embarrass the federal government into action. For example, Attawapiskat First Nation’s 2011 housing crisis became a platform to raise the larger issue: the crushing poverty was adjacent to hundreds of millions of dollars of diamonds being extracted at the Victor De Beers mine. In October 2013, Pukatawagan First Nation, nine hundred kilometres north of Winnipeg, capitalized on UN indigenous rights investigator James Anaya’s visit to Canada to spotlight their crippling suicide rates, which are among the world’s highest, higher than any other country in the world, and outranked only by other First Nations communities in Canada.

But in 2005, Kashechewan First Nation was one of the first to see the media’s potential. On October 25th, in a meeting that would seal Kashechewan’s fate, Trusler sat down with Premier Dalton McGuinty and David Ramsay, Ontario’s natural resources and Aboriginal affairs minister. Trusler came prepared. He and others on the reserve had prepared a PowerPoint presentation. Questions like: “Are we going to continue to accept that when we bathe in the water that simple cuts can turn into this?” were placed adjacent to photos of scabrous, limb-long sores, and jugs of brown water. Also documented were close-ups of children’s faces marred by advanced scabies, ringworm, and impetigo; yellow toenails blemished with a dark fungus; a blocked toilet smeared with excrement.

Ramsay called Trusler “a hero” for his work. Later that day, McGuinty decided to evacuate the town and declared Kash to be in a state of emergency.

Aboriginal issues divide along federal and provincial lines; on-reserve is Ottawa’s jurisdiction and off-reserve is the province’s. With different mandates, they have a reputation for lack of coordination on reserve policy. This time was no different. The Ministry ignored the ongoing evacuation and began to inundate the reserve with filtered water. Three hundred and fifty thousand litres of water was to be shipped in Bombardier Dash 8s and Hercules planes. Another 140,000 litres would be produced in situ through DART. As a water emergency plan, it was excellent. Each person on the reserve would receive eighteen litres per day, delivered by the military, Kashechewan’s police, and local volunteers. Filtered water would be provided around the clock for drinking, cooking, dish washing, and bathing. It began to accumulate. Many in the town had realized that the crisis was greatly exaggerated and were back to drinking their water straight from the tap. The DART’s water bags could not be stacked and stored, for fear they would break. Eventually, they were laid out in rows in whatever public space was available, including the church basement, the nursing station, the high school, and the sports rink. Access to Information documents released the following year revealed the military were frustrated by the whole operation. “Although an excellent PR exercise, the true need of the detachment was never established.”

With the arrival of the military, the public outrage about the conditions on the reserve had reached a fever pitch. Kashechewan became a matter of national pride. With the television, radio, and newspaper coverage, hundreds of people began writing to the prime minister and the ministry saying they were ashamed to be Canadian. “I am horrified and disgusted that the government has neglected these people to this extent. How many other reserves are subjected to similar treatment, I wonder. Why are we taking better care of people from other countries than we are of our own?” emailed a member of the public to Minister Scott on October 25, 2005. Another email from the same day presented him with a list of questions: “What have you done so far to improve our brothers and sisters right to a decent life rather than allow them to live in squalor? How much longer are you willing to wait for repairs to begin on the Kashechewan filtration plant? Why are you playing what appears to be Russian roulette with the health of the Kashechewan people? Are they not as important as their neighbours in the Southern part of Canada?” An email to the prime minister on October 28, 2005: “I can’t believe it had to come to this . . . . I hope something is done soon. And not just taking them away . . . making a new reservation . . . and improving the living conditions, jobs and medical care.”

Both levels of government—Ontario and Ottawa—were eager to sidestep the blame. There were several irate newspaper editorials criticizing the deplorable conditions on reserves across Canada. Kashechewan, like many First Nations, had gotten caught in the middle of jurisdictional wrangling, while its problems worsened and were largely ignored, according to the Globe. “The Premier is lucky to have the federal government as a foil because the story of Kashechewan is filled with spectacularly bone-headed moves by Ottawa.”

In its defence, the province said Kashechewan was outside its mandate. It wasn’t Ontario’s fault, as Ottawa has “been missing in action,” Premier Dalton McGuinty told reporters. David Ramsay, the provincial minister responsible for aboriginal affairs, told Queen’s Park “the community has never made any direct demand to the province, nor would they want to, because they know that the federal government has a treaty obligation to take care of that community, as they do of all First Nation communities across this province. The First Nations guard that very, very carefully and they don’t want the province coming in on that.” But if Kashechewan hadn’t wanted the province to get involved, why had they gone to the province time and time again? countered Howard Hampton, Ontario’s NDP leader. They had approached the Ontario government six months, one year, and two years previously, each time claiming they needed urgent help. And given that Ottawa’s negligence was well-known, it was the province’s moral duty to act. “The fact is everybody knew the federal government would not help these people,” said Charlie Angus, the New Democrat MP for the federal riding of Timmins–James Bay. “And so I feel I have to ask, where was the province of Ontario in the face of post-Walkerton?”

The media, including the CBC and the Globe and Mail, arrived in Kashechewan to cover the water crisis on October 27, 2005, flown in on an air charter paid for by the NDP. By this time, the water had been clean for eleven days. For the past nine days, it had met all provincial and federal standards. And in the public relations battle, the Ministry v. Kashechewan, the public had clearly sided with the impoverished reserve.

From the news reports that were published and aired over the following days, the crisis seemed to be progressing according to plan. But in the behind-the-scenes coverage, a number of events seemed off. In a video shot by the CBC, the camera crew drove to what was supposed to be a rally. Neat rows of protest signs attached with identical white plastic tags to the chain link fence, said things like, “We are not invisible”; “We need help now! Not later”; “It’s Our Right to Get Medical Treatment”; and “We need clean water for our children. We need help now. We don’t want our children to be infected with E. coli. Immediate evacuation.” A group of locals examined them like art in a gallery, moving from sign to sign, pointing and smiling. Nearby a crowd of people chatted. Some were smoking, others waved to the camera; one child around the age of seven played with his slingshot. Supposedly a medical emergency, it had a festive feeling, like a public holiday.

Until then, Kash’s water had been in the public eye for more than a week, always the colour of murky ginger ale. Eager to investigate, Global TV reporter Sean Mallen and crew visited a home where the windows were boarded up with plywood and “Outlawz” was graffitied onto the porch. Nineteen people lived in a three-bedroom home, and many were milling about in the kitchen.

A thirtysomething woman turned on the tap while the camera filmed. The water was clean and clear. “I’m drinking tap water!” another shouted, and the camera panned to a group of ladies standing near the sink and drinking the clear liquid from glasses. Mallen looked stressed. He turned to the woman.

“Do any of your kids have a really bad rash?”

“Just me,” she replied.

“Where is it?” Pause. “In a place you can show me?”

Pulling up her shirt, she sucked in her stomach, which was filled with advanced ringworm. She giggled embarrassedly. Mullen leaned in confidentially, sensing her discomfort. “I’m really sorry,” he said. “What happens when you put the water on the rash?”

No answer.

“Does it hurt?”


“Now do any of your children have any kind of rash?”

They both looked around the room. Silence. Another woman pointed at the little boy nearby suggesting he had head lice. Some smiled at the joke.

As it became increasingly apparent that the skin diseases that had appeared in Trusler’s photos were not caused by E. coli, the story changed: the official reason the reserve needed to be evacuated was that LeBlanc had put too much chlorine in the water, although his records suggested otherwise.

By then, all levels of government were interested in containing the crisis. Prime Minister Paul Martin said the federal government would “open wide its cheque book,” and do “whatever is necessary.” Ottawa would spend an estimated $300 million to rebuild at a new location on higher ground so Kashechewan would no longer flood. There would be jobs for locals in the relocation and rebuilding of the community.

Beyond its borders, there would be investment throughout the region. Technically, health care on reserves is supposed to be a federal responsibility. But with Ottawa’s lousy reputation, the dearth is partly made up by a “patchwork of services” run by anyone who steps up to the plate: the province, municipalities, and band councils. Like the issue with the fire department or emergency flooding, the absence of a coordinated response or overarching plan means healthcare on reserves tends to lurch from one crisis to the next.

The water crisis pressured Ottawa into action. On October 27, 2005, Ottawa announced a plan to create a “First Nations Health Organization” in the area to better integrate this patchwork of services and “be more responsive to the unique health needs of this region.”

Suicide too would receive long-overdue attention. The issue impacts many aspects of everyday life, from students who quit school when they lose someone close, the unresolvable sense of loss to the victim’s friends and family, and the anxiety about the possibility of suicide clusters that paralyzes the community. The urgency of the tragedy is heightened only by its familiarity. To tackle the issue, Ottawa promised to “enhance family violence and suicide prevention services” throughout the area, and offer “counselling, psychological supports and youth outreach” to Kashechewan and others in the region.

Finally, water on reserves would become a priority. Ottawa would implement a $1.6 billion national strategy. According to this plan, in three years, it would achieve what had eluded every federal government since Ottawa had begun actively implementing social programs on the reserves in 1951. By 2008, the number of contaminated and at-risk water systems would be reduced from their current figure of three-quarters of all reserves to 16 percent.

The water crisis was extended beyond its lifespan, but it had delivered more than anyone could have imagined.

Excerpted from Invisible North: The Search for Answers on a Troubled Reserve by Alexandra Shimo © 2016, Alexandra Shimo. All rights reserved. Published by Dundurn Press.

Alexandra Shimo
Alexandra Shimo has written several books and is the co-author of Up Ghost River: A Chief’s Journey through the Turbulent Waters of Native History, a finalist for a Governor General’s Award and the winner of a CBC Bookie Award. She lives in Toronto with her wife and son.