Two northwestern Ontario Ojibwa communities mired in a water dispute with Winnipeg are vowing to continue fighting even after the city backed away from a plan to export water outside its borders.
Earlier this week, the city and province hatched a plan to pipe Assiniboine River water into the CentrePort lands in the RM of Rosser, effectively working around a legal challenge issued by two First Nations situated at Indian Bay on Shoal Lake, the source of Winnipeg's drinking water.
'We wanted to sit down and work things out and they decided to go around us. So we're exploring our options' -- Shoal Lake No. 40 Chief Erwin Redsky
In 2012, Iskatewizaagegan First Nation, a road-accessible community situated on the east side of Indian Bay, warned the city not to pursue a plan to extend water pipes into neighbouring municipalities, arguing the move would violate a century-old intergovernmental agreement.
Iskatewizaagegan launched a legal action that was later joined by Shoal Lake No. 40 First Nation, which sits on a peninsula with no road access at the south side of Indian Bay. The International Joint Commission, a Canada-U.S. body that handles cross-border water disputes, issued a preliminary ruling this year that backed up the First Nations, ultimately forcing Winnipeg and Manitoba to find another means to service CentrePort.
On Wednesday, the leaders of both Ojibwa communities expressed satisfaction no Shoal Lake water will flow outside Winnipeg's borders -- but vowed to continue efforts to gain compensation for what they describe as the degradation of their lands, possibly by going to court again.
"Our position all along was the City of Winnipeg does not have the legal authority to export water. I'm not surprised they looked for alternatives and I think this was a worthwhile exercise in confirming our rights," Shoal Lake No. 40 Chief Erwin Redsky said in an interview.
"We wanted to sit down and work things out and they decided to go around us. So we're exploring our options."
According to Redsky, the 1913 agreement that allowed Winnipeg to access water from Shoal Lake did not fully address the relocation of his people to the peninsula they now call home. He said Ottawa, Ontario, Manitoba and Winnipeg should help his community build a water-treatment plant, a sewage-treatment plant and an all-weather road that would connect Shoal Lake No. 40 with the Trans-Canada Highway west of Falcon Lake.
Shoal Lake No. 40 is under a boil-water advisory due to the threat posed by giardia and cryptosporidium, two pathogens rendered harmless by Winnipeg's $300-million water-treatment plant. Redsky said Shoal Lake No. 40 imports bottled water from Kenora, Ont., by barge -- and sends its sewage to Manitoba by barge and rail, under a temporary arrangement with the province.
Iskatewizaagegan First Nation, meanwhile, seeks compensation from Winnipeg for what Chief Eli Mandamin describes as an overzealous freeze on economic development at Indian Bay.
Mandamin claims the city acted too forcefully to prevent gold mining and logging from taking place along Shoal Lake, depriving his community of revenue.
"The biggest problem we've had is Winnipeg has a lot of say in any form of economic development we've had over here," Mandamin said in an interview, claiming the city continues to block any development effort. "We want our own community and our own future. We have to sustain a culture."
As recently as early 2012, senior city officials said they were not concerned about legal challenges from the Shoal Lake communities, at least with respect to water exports.
Winnipeg has been drawing water from Indian Bay since 1919, when the Shoal Lake Aqueduct was completed at a cost of $17 million. The 155-kilometre pipe, powered entirely by gravity, has served Winnipeg's needs ever since.