Minister of Indigenous Services overturns senior official’s decision on Neskantaga water probe

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Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller has denied a senior ministry official about framing an investigation into the 25-year Neskantaga First Nation water crisis, CBC News has learned.Anne Scotton, the ministry’s Ontario regional director general, informed Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias on Thursday afternoon via email that the terms of reference for the investigation would soon be finalized and that a consultant had been selected to manage the third party investigation.

This contradicts a commitment Miller made to Moonias that the terms of the investigation would be worked out jointly with Chief and Council.

“What we agreed on was to work together and develop the mandate [terms of reference]Moonias told CBC News.

“What I got was more of a one-sided approach, so I wasn’t really happy with that. ”

At a press conference this afternoon, Miller said the terms of reference would be co-developed and a new third-party manager would be chosen with community input.

“Anne Scotton’s job is perhaps one of the most difficult in Indigenous Services Canada and she does a great job, but what she reflected to the Chief was not the reflection of the conversation. So it was right in this case to send my regrets to the chef that this was not something that should have been sent, ”Miller said.

“We will work with him to develop the terms of reference for the survey, as it is extended to other communities. And it is essential for that to have their contribution. “

“It was as if it was a slap in the face”

Neskantaga First Nation, an air-accessible community in northern Ontario, has been the subject of a long-term drinking water advisory since 1995.

Several sources familiar with the minister’s decision – who spoke to CBC News on condition that they not be named – said Miller learned of the contents of Scotton’s email later that day.

“I felt like it was a slap in the face,” Moonias said.

Neskantaga, which is located about 450 kilometers north of Thunder Bay, Ontario, has the oldest boil water advisory in the country. (Sol Mamakwa / Twitter)

Miller emailed Moonias Thursday night to rectify the situation.

“I have seen these emails and would like to clarify that my commitment to you is to work with you on both surveys to make sure you are comfortable with the next steps, that you support the final terms of reference and that you are involved in the decision regarding the person hired. to conduct the third party review, ”Miller wrote.

“The emails that have been sent do not specify this and I wanted to address you personally to clarify these points. These inquiries are the result of your requests, and I want to work closely with you to ensure they are done correctly. ”

Scotton proposed two studies – one on the business practices of entrepreneurs, project management and engineering companies, the other on the Neskantaga water and public health crisis.

Selected third-party investigator handled Neskantaga’s finances for years

Neskantaga evacuated nearly all of its members in mid-October to Thunder Bay, 450 km to the south, after the discovery of an oily substance in the community’s reservoir cut off the reserve from its running water supply. . Indigenous Services Canada said the substance was a non-toxic mineral oil from a dispensing pump in the reservoir and repairs are underway.

It was the latest in a series of setbacks that delayed the completion of the promised upgrade of the Neskantaga water treatment plant, which is now years overdue.

Moonias wrote to Miller on October 22 to demand “an immediate investigation into the business practices of entrepreneurs. [and] engineering companies “hired to solve water supply problems that have only gotten worse over the years.”

Miller responded on November 6, “We agree this is important and would love to work with you and other communities and organizations to undertake this. “

Neskantaga chief Chris Moonias has demanded an immediate investigation into the business practices of contractors hired to repair his community’s water treatment plant. (Marc Doucette / CBC)

Scotton wrote to Moonias on Thursday to inform him that the terms of reference for the investigation “will be finalized with the consulting firm (MNP) shortly.”

Scotton also told the Chief that “his personal involvement in the study is very important.”

The choice of MNP, a national business consulting firm, offended Moonias because he was once the third-party manager of Neskantaga – an agency hired by the federal government to take over the financial management of deeply indebted First Nations.

According to documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, MNP received $ 200,000 from the First Nation each year during the 16 years that she managed the finances of Neskantaga.

The community said they did not want an NPM as a third party investigator as they cannot be impartial given their previous work with the First Nation.

“I want to make sure it’s a real, impartial investigation,” Moonias said.

Miller said he can understand how MNP’s selection is offensive for Neskantaga.

In his email to Moonias, Scotton wrote that the purpose of the special study on the business practices of construction, engineering and project management companies involved in large capital projects is to strengthen internal controls and monitoring practices of First Nations and Indigenous Services Canada.

She said the focus will be on a range of major capital projects approved and funded for First Nations in northern and remote Ontario from 2016 to 2021.

Scotton also said the study will include interviews and a review of documents. It would examine current operational practices, the resources available to First Nations, the project management structure, financial and administrative controls, the departmental project review and approval process, and the extent to which actions have already been taken. taken to resolve the problems already identified.

The trade practices investigation would start the week of December 6 and end on February 25, 2022, she wrote. The study on Neskantaga would start the same week, but would end at the end of next March.

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