The Ontario government declared a state of emergency last night at a remote native reserve plagued with contaminated drinking water, paving the way for the removal of as many as 1,100 residents.
The government will charter planes to airlift residents of the Kashechewan Reserve in need of medical attention to Timmins, Cochrane and other neighbouring communities. Kashechewan is a fly-in community about 450 kilometres north of Timmins, on the coast of James Bay.
As many as 60 per cent of the reserve's 1,900 Cree residents require medical attention.
The evacuation order, which followed a meeting between Mr. Ramsay, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and native leaders, marked a dramatic about-face from the government's earlier position.
According to a copy of a 1992 Emergency Preparedness Agreement signed by Ottawa and Ontario, the province is responsible for providing emergency assistance when requested by the Department of Indian Affairs or a first-nations community.
The federal government is then responsible for costs incurred by the province.
Stan Louttit, grand chief for the Mushkegowuk Council, who is responsible for the Kashechewan Reserve, told the province should have acted years ago. "Why did it have to come to this," he said. "We're residents of Ontario."
The reserve has been under a boil-water advisory for two years. But the plight of the community became much worse two weeks ago when deadly E. coli bacteria were found in drinking water the colour of ginger-ale. The community's school was closed last week because teachers couldn't assure the safety of students.
The community's dirty water problem is blamed on the location of the treatment plant's intake pipe, which is 135 metres downstream from a sewage lagoon. As a result, sewage goes directly into the water-filtration system.
Kashechewan, a Cree word for flowing water, is by no means alone when it comes to having undrinkable tap water. Murray Trusler, a doctor who visited the reserve last week, told there are 100 native communities in Canada, including 51 in Ontario, that have to boil their drinking water.
An inquiry into the Walkerton tragedy also highlighted problems with the water on many first-nations reserves, describing it as some of the poorest quality in the province.
Ottawa has responded to the crisis by flying in bottled water. A spokesman for Mr. Scott said Ottawa will also cover the costs of evacuating the reserve.
Down the road, a bigger issue confronting the community is whether it should be relocated permanently. Mr. Louttit said the reserve must be moved because it is located on a flood plain, The Globe and Mail reports.