Nearly three weeks after being forced from their homes, evacuees from Eabametoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario are finding ways to cope, including by taking care of their physical and mental well-being.
The remote Ojibway First Nation of about 1,600 people is approximately 360 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. Though it has been under a long-term boil-water advisory since 2002, it has been in a state of emergency since a fire broke out at the Eabametoong First Nation Water Treatment Plant on July 5, leaving no access to safe drinking water.
More than 700 people were forced from their homes and most have been staying in Thunder Bay. But with no more available space in that city, over 300 are in Niagara Falls.
On Monday, evacuees in Thunder Bay held a powwow with people from other nearby First Nations communities to dance, sing and demonstrate support as they await a report on the status of the water treatment plant.
Eabametoong Chief Solomon Atlookan said it was tremendous seeing so many people come together to show support.
“There were a lot of dancers out there this evening and our people mingling around, our little kids dancing as well.”
He said deciding to host the powwow was a last-minute decision.
“It’s one of those things, I thought, ‘I just wanted to bring everyone together and meet people from outside” the Eabametoong community.”
Loss of water, evacuation difficult
For some community members, being away from home for an extended period has taken a toll on their mental health.
Melanie Waswa has been in Thunder Bay with her family since July 9. She said things have been hectic since she and her family were displaced.
“I’ve been working since I got out here, so it’s been tough having to serve our people and manage your own family while being separated from the other half of your family.”
Shaylyne Waboose, 21, has also been staying in Thunder Bay the last few weeks with her siblings because of the evacuation. She said her family experienced skin irritations in Eabametoong First Nation as a result of the water crisis.
“My nieces and nephews’ skins have eczema and they’ve been flaring up. But once they came out here [to Thunder Bay], they started improving with water.”
Waboose added that her family said it was depressing not having running water for bathing or to clean their home.
“I couldn’t shower, I couldn’t wash dishes to eat and I couldn’t wash my clothes. And I couldn’t feel good, so it made me feel depressed or ugly.”
Waboose said now that she’s washing her clothes in Thunder Bay, she’s been feeling better about herself and it makes her happy to see her family wash their babies and siblings.
Atlookan, also in Thunder Bay with other evacuees, said people were excited to come to the city because of the running water and amenities. Despite the “little hiccups” along the way, he said, things have been going well.
“You’re always going to get a few situations here and there when you put a lot of people together in one building, so that just happened, but I think that’s something that our group managed very well.”
Federal ministers meet with community leadership
Thunder Bay MP and Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu and Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Marc Miller met with community leadership Monday. They went to the powwow to share words of encouragement with the evacuees.
Hajdu said Indigenous Services Canada can support communities through the Emergency Management Assistance Program during various crises, including evacuations in Eabametoong.
“It’s still really stressful for communities to be evacuated, regardless of the reason,” she said.
Hajdu said Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) will work with the First Nation community to ensure they have enough funds to pay for accommodations, and receive transportation and health services for evacuees if needed.
“In this case, it really is assuring to the community that we’ll be there with the financial and the practical supports so that they can use that principle self determination to protect their members during this difficult time.”
In addition, Hajdu said, ISC will help Eabametoong First Nation as long as they need it and in a way the community determines is best for them.
“In the past, that would be very much the department deciding for the community what would be allowed and not allowed,” said Hajdu.
“And now the concept is communities know what’s best for them, and we work in partnership with communities to fill those gaps. It might be cash, it might be cash flow, it might be specific people or resources, but we are there for the community and we’re there for the long term.”
Hajdu said she hopes evacuees can return home soon. She also said ISC will be there to support them if they can’t.
“Obviously people want to go home and home is where people’s hearts are, and it’s the best-case scenario for the community to go home as soon as possible.”
Waswa said the evacuees have received many different supports in Thunder Bay, such as us through health clinics and recreation to boost mental health.
“I know all of us come together every time a crisis happens,” Waboose said. “It feels good to know that they’re there for us.”
Atlookan said he’s satisfied with the support his community has received and they’re in a good spot for the time being.
“Initially there were quite a few things that we were in need of,” he said. “As far as bodies in the community that are assisting and helping out, we’ve got numerous people coming from different organizations helping out there. So that has gone very well and I’m very grateful for that.”