A Shoal Lake First Nation caused a stir last October when it sent the City of Winnipeg an $8-million bill, the amount it calculates the city bills its residents for water usage every month.
It was the start of what has become a year-long legal battle over the City of Winnipeg's right to draw water from Shoal Lake, the source of the city's drinking water, and send it to neighbouring municipalities. For Winnipeg, sharing the service is critical for the development of the CentrePort industrial hub in the RM of Rosser, north of the city.
Without the water, CentrePort growth could be affected, and that's why Shoal Lake's water was a big story this year and will remain so in 2013.
The city was quick to dismiss claims raised by two Shoal Lake First Nations that alleged Winnipeg does not have the authority to take additional water for its neighbours.
Mayor Sam Katz said a court challenge would not hamper the city's plan to extend its water pipes. Chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl said the city has done its due diligence and he feels "comfortable with our position."
The international commission disagrees.
In December, the City of Winnipeg announced it set aside a plan to extend water pipes into the RMs of Rosser and West St. Paul after receiving a letter from the International Joint Commission, which raised undisclosed issues. The Canada-U.S. body, which resolves cross-border water disputes, said in the Sept. 20 letter to the city that water is not to be shared beyond Winnipeg's municipal boundary.
Ontario gave Winnipeg permission to draw water from Shoal Lake for municipal purposes in an order-in-council in 1913, and the federal government and the International Joint Commission also issued water-taking authorizations in 1913 and 1914. The IJC's letter said these orders gave Winnipeg permission to draw water from Shoal Lake "exclusively" for city residents.
City council has asked the IJC for an expedited decision on the matter.
Despite the revelation, what struck me is the fact Winnipeg officials have still not admitted First Nations leaders may have raised a valid point. First Nations leaders said they have still not heard from Winnipeg officials and allege the city continues to ignore their concerns.
"I don't think it's fair. We want a fair deal," Iskatewizaagegan No. 39 Chief Eli Mandamin said following Winnipeg city council's December meeting.
Mandamin's community of 300 on-reserve residents is located at the east end of Indian Bay, a section of Shoal Lake that straddles the Manitoba-Ontario border. The Winnipeg Aqueduct intake structure is located at the west end of the lake by Shoal Lake No. 40, a separate First Nation.
Both communities are involved in a court challenge against the city's water-sharing move.
In an affidavit filed in the Court of Queen's Bench, Shoal Lake No. 40 Chief Erwin Redsky said the federal government allowed Winnipeg to expropriate about 3,300 acres of the reserve's land in Manitoba to divert water from Shoal Lake for its residents in 1915. As a result, the First Nation relocated its main village to the Ontario side of the lake. Winnipeg built a canal between the Indian and Snowshoe bays as part of the water project, forcing First Nation residents to travel by boat, barge or winter road if they wish to go elsewhere.
Redsky's affidavit said the aqueduct has curtailed the community's economic development.
Shoal Lake No. 39 has said the water level is kept artificially high with water from the Lake of the Woods watershed so Winnipeg can pump drinking water. He said the raised water level has destroyed areas in which fish spawned and wild rice was harvested.
Mandamin said his community does not want to damage Winnipeg's economy, but wants to ensure theirs can develop, too. He said the community needs to ensure its culture and way of life, and has repeatedly asked to negotiate a fair deal with the City of Winnipeg.
"It's taken our human rights away," Mandamin said. "They've got to stop ignoring us."