MCC investigates water plight in Manitoba

WINNIPEG, MB–Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is sending a delegation to the Island Lake communities in northern Manitoba to explore ways the aid agency could help alleviate poor living conditions that include a lack of clean water.

Thousands of homes in the four First Nations communities on the Manitoba Ontario border have no indoor plumbing. Residents are forced to use pails for toilets, boil their drinking water and haul water for washing and laundry in buckets from the lake.

Last fall the Winnipeg Free Press published a series of articles that shed light on terrible living conditions in a number of northern communities that lacked running water. In St. Theresa Point, the band delivers about 10 litres of potable water per person each day to homes that need it. The UN calculates that one person needs at least 50 litres of clean water per day to meet basic needs. Residents carry water for washing in buckets from a hole chipped in the lake ice. Baths are rare and staying clean is difficult, causing many children to develop skin infections and other health problems.

Not long after the Winnipeg Free Press began publishing stories, phones started ringing at MCC offices.

“We started getting phone calls and e-mails saying, 'This is a desperate situation. Is MCC going to do anything?'" says Peter Rempel, MCC Manitoba's executive director.

MCC supports projects helping provide clean water to communities in Palestine, Honduras, Kenya and Mexico. But conditions in some parts of Manitoba are just as bad as these places.

In January MCC hosted a community meeting to discuss the situation with members of the Mennonite and First Nations communities. More than 100 people attended the event at Bethel Mennonite Church in January.

At the meeting Kevin Carlson from the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) communities told listeners that about 1,000 homes in need to be retrofitted with indoor plumbing. That would cost about $33 million.

“That's beyond our capacity," says Rempel. MCC is in conversation with MKO and the Island Lake Tribal Council to explore how they might lend a hand. That could mean holding a fundraiser, writing a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper or retrofitting a few of the houses that need it most, says Rempel.

“We're not asking for a handout," said MKO chief David Harper at the event. “We're simply asking the general public, the government to acknowledge that there is a covenant." In 1909 Ottawa signed a treaty with First Nations, agreeing to share the wealth of the land, said Harper. He pointed out that $3 billion dollars worth of natural resources are extracted from First Nations land every year.

The federal government's Department of Indian Affairs is undertaking a multi-phase project to bring water and sewage systems to these communities. But that won't involve retrofitting homes with indoor plumbing.

Funding the bands receive from Indian Affairs isn't enough to address the issue, said Carlson. “We have a community of people trying to address a housing crisis after 30 years of inflation with the same money we've received for the past three decades."

Rempel says MCC has gotten mixed messages from its constituents. Some are all for MCC getting involved. Others are cautious.

Rudy Doerksen, an engineer who attended the meeting, said he wouldn't retrofit homes as decrepit as the ones he saw in the video shown at the event. The pipes would freeze, he said.

“We're quite aware of the crucial questions that need to be raised," says Rempel. After the delegation's visit MCC will decide how to respond.

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