The people of Island Lake are not asking for handouts to help get running water into their homes, Northern Manitoba Grand Chief David Harper told a public meeting organized Friday night to explore whether the Mennonite Central Committee could help.
"In Manitoba alone, $3 billion is extracted every year from our lands, waters, our natural resources. All we're asking is to share the wealth, to go back to the treaties... We simply are asking the general public, the government, to acknowledge that there is a covenant."
Peter Rempel, executive director of the Mennonite Central Committee that organized the Just Water event, said after the meeting that the concept of a sacred covenant "really resonates with Christians."
"The people who signed the treaties on behalf of the Canadian government, I think, must have signed them out of some sense of understanding that this was also under God."
Rempel told the gathering of more than 100 people at Bethel Mennonite Church that his Winnipeg-based international development agency was aware of the situation on Northern Manitoba reserves. After Free Press stories last fall about lack of running water in Island Lake homes, members of the public started asking if MCC would contribute to a solution.
The meeting was called to get advice on what role the organization should play.
Kevin Carlson, housing advisor for Northern Manitoba chiefs, explained that Indian Affairs has funded water and sewage treatment plants, plus distribution lines to about half the homes in Island Lake's four First Nations. The federal department promises to come back in five to 10 years to finish the distribution system, but no one is funding retrofits to existing homes so they can actually make use of the water.
"We want to make each home ready -- provide a bathroom in the home, a kitchen sink in the home, a laundry tap in the home," Carlson said.
Each First Nation has a small pot of capital funding that could be used for renovations, but for a decade, much of that money was needed to pay off a $1-million loan for upgrading homes to 60-amp electrical service after power lines finally reached the region.
Carlson showed a video called Wrapped in Plastic produced in 1999 to highlight lack of running water and other intolerable living conditions on Northern Manitoba reserves. "It hasn't improved," he said, pointing out that the recent Free Press video No Running Water proves his point.
At the back of the church sat Derek Harper, an employee of the Island Lake Tribal Council who still has to haul water home to his family in buckets -- despite his job maintaining water and sewage plants. The tribal council met Friday with MCC officials to talk about possible joint projects.
David Harper has asked the Manitoba government to cost-share a plumbing retrofit program with the federal government -- as the Ontario government did in the 1990s. The estimated cost to retrofit 1,000 homes is about $33 million.
In the meantime, he hopes MCC will help out with emergency renovations for homes with disabled children. "Let's do at least one or two homes."
Many Mennonites have experience in the construction industry and Mennonite Disaster Services works overseas to repair and rebuild homes.
Rempel said it's possible the Frontiers Foundation will also be able to assist. The Toronto-based aboriginal voluntary service organization is holding a conference in Winnipeg next month on aboriginal and northern housing.
During a question period, an engineer said plumbing installed in decrepit reserve homes will freeze. "The issue is much bigger than water.
"As for us Mennonites, I really hope that this is not something that we would take on for making ourselves feel good," said the engineer.
He received scattered applause, but aboriginal elder Lucy Guibouche inspired more sustained applause when she said, "I was taught... when someone needs help, to come alongside and support my neighbour... Are we not going to be the good Samaritans?"
Like lots of rural Manitobans her age, Guibouche grew up without running water. "There were many people who were sick because of the cold houses that we grew up in and a lot of them did die."