As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to the Canadian Teachers’ Federation at its annual general meeting in Ottawa on Thursday, a row of teachers silently held up letters spelling “Attawapiskat.”
The demonstration comes just days after the local band council declared a state of emergency in the Indigenous community amid issues with water quality.
The group was sitting at the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario table.
The state of emergency was declared on July 9 in the northern Ontario First Nations community after potentially harmful levels of byproducts from a water disinfection process were found in its drinking water. Residents were told to limit their exposure to the water and avoid showering and washing food with tap water.
While Trudeau did not directly acknowledge the protesters, he did touch on boil water advisories during the discussion.
“We’ve done a lot,” Trudeau said on the subject of reconciliation. “We’ve eliminated close to 85 different boil-water advisories, [and] are on track to eliminate all of them on time by 2021.”
He acknowledged, however, that there is more to do.
“It’s very tempting in politics to focus on the negative, and certainly I’m more than willing to admit that like any good teacher I’ve made mistakes and I’ve learned a lot through this process, but we’re on a path of making Canada better for everyone,” said Trudeau.
His government came under fire when, on July 4 – just days before the state of emergency was declared in Attawapiskat – Environment Minister Catherine McKenna tweeted about Ottawa’s high-quality tap water.
“There’s a lot to love about Ottawa — including our tap water! Did you know it’s rated among the best in the world?” she wrote on Twitter.
The tweet prompted a swift response on social media, including a tweet from Attawapiskat resident Adrian Sutherland.
“Must be nice to have clean drinking water – thousands of indigenous people don’t even have clean water to bathe in never-mind drink. I don’t think is something to be proud of!” he wrote.
The government says it is working to bring the levels of the contaminant down in the community’s water.
“The community is concerned, and when the community is concerned we are concerned too,” said Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan in an interview with CTV News Channel on Wednesday.
“We’re working with the community right now.”
The state of emergency, in the meantime, is ongoing.