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So near, so far

At the mouth of the aqueduct, there's no water to drink

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Winnipeggers enjoy fresh water from Shoal Lake with the turn of a tap.

But the First Nation hugging its shores will have to keep hauling in drinking water from Kenora after Ottawa shelved its plans for a water treatment plant.


Ottawa had set aside $7.6 million for a plant that has been discussed with the First Nation since 1998. But this fall, after new construction costs showed the project would cost nearly twice as much to build, Ottawa told the First Nation it was a no-go.

"On Oct. 22, they asked us for a meeting and out of the blue, we were notified at the meeting, 'Sorry, we're cancelling the project. It costs too much and there are too few people,' " Shoal Lake 40 Chief Erwin Redsky said.

"It took us off guard," Redsky said. "Completely."

A Nov. 12 letter from a senior official in the Ontario office of Indian and Northern Affairs confirmed the decision. The topic won't come up again for review until 2015 and, even then, the maximum Ottawa will put toward the water plant is the original $7.6 million, acting associate regional director general Joseph Young said in the letter.

Redsky planned to meet Friday with a new regional director general for Indian Affairs in Toronto on the plant and the need for a permanent road, and to lobby Ontario aboriginal affairs officials for support.

Manitoba is obligated to support economic development and protect the water under a 1989 agreement with Shoal Lake and the City of Winnipeg, which involves regular discussions with the First Nation. But it is Ottawa that has a fiduciary duty to the First Nation under treaty law and federal statutes such as the Indian Act, a Manitoba spokesman said.

The First Nation straddles the border between Manitoba and Ontario.

The decision to cancel the plant is also linked to the reserve's dwindling population, Redsky said.

While most Ontario and Manitoba First Nations are growing or stable, the reverse is true for Shoal Lake. Seventy percent of its population lives off reserve. There are 265 residents left on the reserve, the Indian Affairs First Nations registry states.

What rankles Redsky is that he and the community blame Ottawa for isolating them in the first place.

The community was moved off its original village site nearly a century ago when Winnipeg made Shoal Lake the city's official water source.

The Winnipeg aqueduct crosses the old village site and a burial ground.

"The bottom line is the federal government expropriated our land and made us into a man-made island. They're penalizing us for something they created and people are leaving because of it," Redsky said.

In the meantime, it costs the band $240,000 a year to bring water 67 kilometres every week from Kenora, either by truck or by barge.

Their plight is a source of dark humour, too. One inside joke to visitors at Shoal Lake goes: "What's the real name of Shoal Lake? Alcatraz."

An eight-metre-wide diversion channel cuts the community off from the mainland. It's part of the reservoir and aqueduct system that keeps Winnipeg's taps flowing with clean water.

Redsky said he and his community look across the lake to another Shoal Lake reserve, Shoal Lake 39, where there is a state-of-the-art water treatment plant. That adds to their frustration.

There are other costs to their isolation, too.

A barge nicknamed Amik (beaver in Ojibwa) bridges the crossing in summer. In winter, the trip is made on foot or snowmobile. Between 1998 and 2004, four people have died falling through the ice at breakup.

The channel also cuts the community off from any chance of economic security, the chief said. He said Shoal Lake might as well be under a federal blockade.

"We've been blockaded from exercising our human rights to participate as equal citizens in the economy," Redsky said. "The feds created the problem and they should be part of the solution."

Shoal Lake is joining forces with the Regional Municipality of Reynolds next door in hopes the two governments can do what each alone can't: swing support for a permanent road off "Alcatraz" and into virgin land in the RM.

Reynolds Reeve David Turchyn said he welcomes the alliance with Shoal Lake because a road opens up the prospect of jobs and development of abundant beds of peat moss.

"We're in full support of working to get full employment in the area. It's not about his people or my people. It's about all of our people, because we're one community," Turchyn said. "There are no borders."

A winter road that opened in November is the first step to gathering support for a permanent road, the two leaders said.

Construction of an all-weather road to the Trans-Canada Highway, a distance of 28 kilometres, is pegged at $25 million in a study Shoal Lake will present to Ottawa later this month.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 8, 2011 A6

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