Raw waste continues to leak from the broken sewage lagoon on the North Caribou Lake First Nation two months after the federal Indigenous Services Minister promised an end to the problem, and Chief Dinah Kanate is still waiting for the repair or the replacement of the receptacle to begin.
“We have had meetings and meetings and meetings [with representatives of Indigenous Services Canada] and what has been decided is nothing,” Ms. Kanate said in a telephone interview this week. Frustrated with the lack of action, the chief of the First Nation of 700 people in Northern Ontario said she will ask for bids from companies that can solve the most immediate problems and then hope that the federal government will pay the bill.
“We’re in the bush and nobody cares,” Ms. Kanate said. “That’s why nothing gets done when we have problems like this.”
The lagoon on the reserve about 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay has leaked every year since it was constructed with federal dollars, and to federal specifications, in 1997. Even then, it was too small to serve the North Caribou Lake population and was meant to last just 10 years.
This past winter, the leaks were so great that its contents were sent streaming across the north end of the community, melting the winter road to First Nations further north, and threatening to contaminate local streams and the lake that is the source of the reserve’s drinking water.
After The Globe and Mail reported about the issue in early April, Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan called Ms. Kanate to express his concern and to say the flow would be stopped.
But no work has been done to date to stem the leaks. Nor are there plans in place for a new lagoon that is expected to take at least five years to install as a result of the bureaucratic hurdles required when infrastructure is constructed on First Nations.
Martine Stevens, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada, said the government is waiting for the First Nation to finalize a work plan that will include the scope and costs for both the interim repairs and the community’s long-term water and wastewater needs.
But Ms. Kanate said it is the First Nation that is waiting for the department to complete the paperwork required to remove two large masses that sit on top of the lagoon and prevent it from functioning properly. The First Nation tried to burn them off without much success.
The department started in May to test the area around the lagoon for contaminants. Ms. Stevens said in an e-mail that more samples will be taken in the next couple of weeks.
But Windigo, the tribal council for North Caribou Lake, says the results of the most recent tests are inconclusive because some key data were not collected. And raw sewage is lying outside the lagoon in plain sight so, with or without the tests, there is no question that its contents are getting out.
In addition, the lagoon was constructed to be discharged annually, with the flow to be directed away from the community. But that has not happened in 22 years and it has overflowed just once. So the sewage is going somewhere.
Ms. Stevens pointed out that, in January of 2019, the department gave the First Nation more than $265,000 to conduct both a comprehensive water study and a wastewater feasibility study. Those are both under way.
But Ms. Kanate said: “I don’t know why we had to spend so much money on this study when we know we need a new lagoon.”
The smell, she said, is not as bad now as it was when the ground was frozen. But “once winter comes, that thing is going to be the same again next year.”
Alvin Fiddler, the Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents North Caribou Lake and 48 other Northern Ontario First Nations, said work on the lagoon should have begun by now,
“It has basically been leaking for the past 22 years,” said Mr. Fiddler, and that has “huge potential for damage to their lake and their water, and is also compromising their well-being and health.”