When the evacuation of Neskantaga First Nation due to tainted water made international headlines last fall, then-chief Chris Moonias encouraged the prime minister and other federal politicians to visit the remote northwestern Ontario community to see for themselves how people live under Canada’s longest on-reserve boil water advisory.
On Monday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh became the first federal leader to take up Moonias’ invitation during a tour of Indigenous communities.
“It was something that we wanted to do because we wanted our voices heard,” Moonias told CBC News.
“If the [prime minister] doesn’t want to come, might as well ask somebody else to carry your voices.”
The NDP is hoping Singh’s visit can leverage that disappointment by shifting Indigenous voters away from the Liberals.
A record number of Indigenous voters went to the polls in 2015 to help elect a majority Liberal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“I think for a lot of Indigenous voters, what they are discovering is that they got a lot of words from the government, a lot of commitments, a lot of promises, but there hasn’t been the follow-through,” Anne McGrath, the NDP’s national director, told CBC News.
Along with visiting Neskantaga, Singh met forest fire evacuees from First Nations in northern Ontario, who are calling on Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government to offer more support.
He also became the first federal leader to tour the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, where a ground-penetrating radar specialist reported 200 possible burial sites.
Singh’s tour fell largely outside the national media spotlight, with no large press contingent following along — an unusual strategy at a time when an election call is expected within weeks.
“We’ve just spent the last year and a half doing a lot of things virtually,” McGrath said. “The impact of what government policies have had on people is much more obvious, I think, if you’re there in person. Like if you see the mould in the substandard housing, if you see the numbers of people that have to live under one roof in close proximity, if you see the impact of unsafe water … that really kind of brings it home.
“I also think that, for many of the communities that we’re talking about, that kind of contact is meaningful for them.”
NDP looks for breakthrough as it turns 60
The tour comes as the NDP approaches its 60th anniversary on August 3.
The party has 24 seats in the House of Commons and an election call is widely expected soon. In an interview with CBC’s The House airing Saturday, Singh said he feels the party can highlight what it’s done to pressure the government from the opposition benches and convince voters that it’s ready to form government.
“We can show the example of what we were able to do in a minority with just 24 seats. Imagine what we could do with more New Democrats. Imagine what a New Democrat government could do,” he said.
“We can show the results … the nearly eight million Canadians that needed CERB across Canada got more help because we were there. The workers who were able to keep their jobs, who were able to keep their jobs because we fought to increase the wage subsidy from 10 to 75 per cent. We’re going to share these victories with Canadians.”
CBC News: The House18:12The NDP at 60
In Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, Singh said he wants to use the opening created by the public outpouring of grief and anger that followed the reported discovery of unmarked graves at former residential school sites to press for more ambitious action.
“That gives me a lot of hope, the fact that Canadians themselves are saying we have to do something about this,” he said. “What can we do? That, to me, is the momentum we need to build on.”
Singh said a government led by him would move swiftly to appoint a special prosecutor to pursue crimes against Indigenous people, support every community that wants to uncover and investigate burial sites on former residential school grounds, and end the government’s court action against a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling that ordered compensation for Indigenous children who faced discrimination.
In Neskantaga, Singh heard from 14 community members — including children who’ve lived their entire lives under the boil water advisories, such as 10-year-old Bee Moonias.
“She said, ‘I’m a 10-year-old girl fighting for clean drinking water,'” Singh said. “That was, to me, heartbreaking and heart-wrenching.”
Singh promised to continue advocating for Neskantaga. If elected, he said, he would fund a new water treatment plant and distribution system in the community.
“The Neskantaga community is saying that we need a proper water treatment plant that works and a better distribution system, and a New Democrat government would deliver that without any question,” Singh said.
Current Neskantaga Chief Wayne Moonias told CBC News he isn’t sure when the boil water advisory is going to be lifted, so it was important to have a federal leader on the ground.
“The community really appreciated the visit,” Moonias said. “It shows that there is somebody that really wants to see first-hand what is happening.”
Chris Moonias isn’t as optimistic about lifting the boil water advisory as he used to be. He said the repairs being done to the water treatment plant are still not producing the right pressure.
He said he voted Liberal in the past, but doesn’t think he will in the next federal election.
“There’s been lots of broken promises,” he said.