One phrase stands out in the coverage of the Gomery Report on the sponsorship scandal: "failed to take the most elementary precautions." It is applied to former prime minister Jean Chretien's chief of staff, Jean Pelletier. But in light of the deeper scandal brought to the fore by the water crisis in Kashechewan, those words could be applied much more widely, and well beyond the bounds of government. On October 23, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, reacting to an E. coli outbreak on the Kashechewan First Nations reserve and acting on advice from Health Canada, stated that it would not evacuate the community. It increased the amount of bottled water it shipped to the reserve to 1,500 18- litre bottles a day (leaving each of the 1,900 residents about a litre less than the World Health Organization's daily minimum of 15 litres a day for all activities.)
It'd been more than two weeks since the bacteria were found in the town's water supply, and two years since a standing "boil water" advisory was issued. The province commenced an evacuation by air two days later.
Comparisons to other recent water-related disasters have been surprisingly absent. Canucks were happy to gloat over the American racial chasm clearly reflected in the New Orleans floodwaters; facing similar Canadian realities is proving a bit more awkward.
It is equally embarrassing to have the international press report on rescue workers recently returned from New Orleans heading to Northern Ontario - with a military water filter of the type used in Sri Lanka post-tsunami soon to follow - in response to simple poverty and neglect. And while New Orleans residents are still hoping to someday return to their homes, it seems that much of Kashechewan's population wants to forget the place and move on.
The immediate devastation in New Orleans or Sri Lanka was far greater by an order of magnitude, but it may be that we are comparing two disasters of comparable scale - one fast-moving, one in excruciating slow motion.
In the days after the evacuation, First Nations leaders have endeavoured to publicize the fact that at least 85 native communities across the country are under boil-water advisories - 37 in Ontario alone. (In 2004, drinking water in the province's Keewaywin reserve was found to be tainted with uranium.)
While there is no inventory of specific causes in each case, it's a safe bet that, as in New Orleans, some contamination is a result of flooding.
During the 1970s and 80s, hydro development on the Quebec side of James Bay (Kashechewan sits on the Ontario side) flooded an area half the size of Lake Ontario for what is now known as La Grande Basin hydroelectric system.
The creation of such reservoirs for hydroelectric dams has had unanticipated side effects. The sudden drowning of vegetation causes it to decompose rapidly, releasing naturally occurring inorganic mercury. This highly toxic and persistent form of the chemical soon shows up in water and fish downstream from the reservoirs.
Mercury levels continue to rise in the water ecology around La Grande Basin. Hydro Quebec is now expanding the enterprise with projects such as the diversion of the Rupert River.
The Canadian know-how behind the Basin, which was referred to during construction as the James Bay Project, was provided by Montreal-based engineering firm SNC Lavalin and American firm Bechtel. SNC is currently working on the Rupert diversion.
Mining, still very much a growth industry in the north, is also a major source of water pollution. Exploratory drilling is currently being conducted by a joint venture between Canadian companies Spider Resources and KWG Resources and South African diamond cartel DeBeers. All this serves to underscore the ongoing colonization of Canada's northern frontier. Bechtel has come under fire for its post-invasion contracts in Iraq and its ties to the Bush family. KWG has weathered attention for its presence in Haiti during a controversial Canadian-led U.N. mission.
SNC has taken part both in road-building in Haiti and ammunition manufacturing for the Pentagon. DeBeers has long been a target of activists for doing business in conflict zones in the global South. Ontario's role might also bear some scrutiny. Part of the Hydro Quebec expansion is necessary to fulfill an agreement to provide almost 2,000 megawatts of electricity to this province by 2011.
During the evacuation, Premier Dalton McGuinty has been able to position the provincial Liberals as the hero against a backdrop of federal indifference - this despite the fact that many of the health problems in Kashechewan, such as impetigo and hepatitis A, likely have less to do with E. coli than with decades of neglect. In 2003, the Ontario Clean Water Agency called Kashechewan a "Walkerton-in-waiting."
There have been surprisingly few references to that 2000 disaster. This time around there were, mercifully, no deaths. But it may also be that, in the absence of outright wrongdoing there is no easy scandal - only the long-standing and thoroughly embarrassing shame of First Nations communities living like Third World refugees.