SIOUX LOOKOUT, Ont. - NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh listened quietly to a mother who lost her daughter to suicide in an isolated fly-in First Nation in northern Ontario where the community has been facing Canada’s longest boil-water advisory.
During the final week of campaigning before Monday’s federal election, Singh said it was important to use the critical time before ballots are cast to visit Neskantaga First Nation and get a firsthand view of the effects of the 26-year water advisory on the living conditions of the community.
"It is a stark and startling example of how bad things are," Singh said following a more than five-hour tour throughout the nation.
Marilyn Waswa was held by family members as she talked about walking to the First Nation’s makeshift water station to get jugs to take home. When she arrived, she found her 14-year-old daughter dead.
"I wish the water was clean," Waswa said through tears, adding she believes it contributed to her daughter’s death.
It was the second time in a month that Singh visited the community. He went to a small graveyard where Cynthia Moonias spoke about many of her children who also took their own life. Singh sat with a mother of two who said she can’t wash with the water because it is causing a skin condition.
Singh also drove past the local school where about 50 children, mostly wearing orange, yelled "fix our water" while holding signs calling for action.
"Indigenous people continue to be denied a basic human right of drinking water," Singh said. "It doesn't have to be this way."
Desmon Moonias, 19, walked around the water treatment plant along with Singh. He said the advisory has been in place his entire life. He hopes one day children in his community won’t experience the same thing.
In 2015, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau promised to lift all long-term drinking-water advisories by March 2021. His government acknowledged in December that the deadline would be missed despite the lifting of more than 100 long-term drinking-water advisories in five years.
In March, the Liberal government said it remains committed to ending all the advisories, but it won’t set a new deadline, as 52 long-term drinking-water advisories in 33 First Nations communities are still in place.
At the time, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said some First Nations chose to maintain drinking water advisories until they finish the construction of long-term projects.
The federal government additionally reached a nearly $8-billion settlement in July with First Nations, including Neskantaga, whose members filed a class-action lawsuit over the lack of clean, safe drinking water in their communities. It includes at least $6 billion to support reliable access to safe drinking water on reserves.
Singh didn't say how an NDP government would specifically end the remaining drinking water advisories more quickly than the Liberals, but he said he will make it a priority if elected. He said repeatedly that it relies on the political will to make the change.
"It is not a problem for a G7 nation when it comes to resources, it's not an issue of access to technology, it's not an access to resources question, it's really making it a priority question, and that's what we'll do," he said.
Neskantaga First Nation Chief Wayne Moonias said the community has been under the drinking water advisory for more than 9,700 days under both Conservative and Liberal governments. They’ve heard promises and commitments, but the chief said the community still cannot drink their water.
"We want action and we want action right now," Moonias said.
There must be a real sense of urgency in the next government, the chief added, before endorsing Singh and the New Democrats. Otherwise the stories of family members’ death and illness will continue, he said.
"This is what happens when the promises that are made to us are not fulfilled," Moonias said.
Singh used his two stops in the Kenora, Ont., electoral district Monday to demonstrate the effect of what he called Trudeau’s broken promises.
The district has bounced between Liberals and Conservatives since it was created in 2004. Conservative Eric Melillo is the incumbent after the New Democrats came in a close third during the last federal election.
At an earlier stop in Sioux Lookout, Ont., about 230 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, Ont., Singh also criticized the Liberals' progress on emission levels and housing.
The NDP leader was the first federal party leader to make a campaign stop on a First Nation. He went to the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan early on. He has also made efforts to connect with Indigenous leaders and voters during a stop in Winnipeg.
While historically turning out to the polls in lower numbers, some say Indigenous populations could be key voting populations in certain ridings. The Native Women’s Association of Canada has said Indigenous women could play a significant role in deciding the vote.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 13, 2021.