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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Dry zone

A trip to northern First Nation

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On the otherwise empty wall of my cubicle is a single sheet of paper.

"I need runing water today," it says in the shaky handwriting of an elder from Wasagamack.

His son pleaded with me to help make his parents' life more comfortable in their old age, after a lifetime of moving the whole family back to the land every summer.

"We need running water so much, but the elders need it the most," Paul Harper said, watching his mother go back and forth between the kitchen and the water barrel by the front door, carrying a scoop of water each time.

I asked Dorcas Harper, 68, how often she gets a real bath -- not just a sponge-down from a basin.

"When I go to Winnipeg," she said.

That would be like me having a bath only once or twice a year when I fly to Toronto to visit my sister.

I once lived in a cabin without running water, on the edge of a Yukon First Nation reserve where I worked as a land-claim researcher. It was an adventure to get through a winter hauling containers of water in my truck from the local gas station. I was in my 20s, physically fit and earning enough money that I could afford gas and proper storage containers.

Like most Manitobans whose idea of living without running water is a few days at the cottage in summer, I have no idea what it's like to spend a lifetime hauling buckets of water by hand, raising kids I can't keep clean and caring for aging parents who hobble to the outhouse in winter.

I have no idea what it's like to watch my child get serious diarrhea and skin sores or worse just from living in our own home.

Free Press photojournalist Joe Bryksa read a reference in our own newspaper during last year's H1N1 flu pandemic to homes in Island Lake without running water.

"How can this be happening in the 21st century in Canada?" he wondered. We knew this wasn't a new issue, but we wanted to find out more, and applied for a grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to help with travel costs.

The first thing that shocked us was how many homes in Island Lake have no running water. How could a community the size of Morden be living like this when other Manitobans are barely aware the problem exists?

Residents of Island Lake took a chance and allowed Joe and me into their homes this year. They had to trust that we wouldn't judge them for their dirty clothes and the grime on their children's faces, that we would somehow find a way to make people back in the city care.

I felt like a home invader.

Am I just one of a long line of white people and city folk with mixed motives who have knocked on northern doors or parted teepee flaps over more than a century trying to persuade the people inside to trust us? My great-great-aunt, the Anglican missionary, wanted indigenous people around Churchill to become Christian; researchers a few years ago in Garden Hill wanted stool samples to prove living without running water is unhealthy.

"It's for your own good," we insist, although it doesn't always work out that way.

Elder Sam Harper of Wasagamack says people come to his house to ask him what he needs, write everything down and then he never hears from them again.

I can't promise that readers of my stories will care, especially that they'll care enough to phone their politicians and demand fast action or call their churches to ask if a fund can be set up to help.

I can almost guarantee that some readers will use the plight of Island Lake residents as an excuse to launch into racist rants, blaming people there for their own situation.

It's true that some Island Lake homes without running water are clean and tidy, usually because the residents have the luxury of living without a dozen relatives or because of heroic efforts the average Winnipegger couldn't match.

Don't feel ashamed of your lives, I want to say to the people whose struggles we recorded. Those who judge you before walking a mile with your water bucket are the ones who should be ashamed.

Some who invited us into their homes met us first on their television screens. Victor Harper took us into the makeshift television studio in Wasagamack -- a room in the community hall where the floors are covered in mud because there's no running water to clean them.

We explained on live television broadcast into most living rooms in the community why we were there, and Victor translated for us into Oji-Cree. Occasionally while we were on the air, the station's phone rang and Victor answered -- his end of the call broadcast live.

I should go back to that television station now and say thank-you to those who allowed us a peek into their family lives.

Thanks for the bannock and tea you made from lake water you had to haul up a snowy bank. Thanks for relaxing enough to tease us about our fear of driving on the not-entirely-frozen lake.

I hope concrete action that eventually changes your lives for the better more than makes up for any negative fallout you experience from letting us into your homes. If not, I'm sorry for the intrusion.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 30, 2010 H12

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