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Analysis

Drinking water denied to residents

Moral, historical and legal obligation to build 'Freedom Road'

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/7/2015 (722 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For the last century the people of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation have solved many of Winnipeg's water problems, and they have paid dearly for it. The story of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation stands as a microcosm for the enduring inequalities upon which Canada is built.

How can we talk meaningfully about reconciliation if we cannot build a 27-kilometre road to an Anishinabe community that is cut off from basic necessities in the interests of a city a two-hour drive away?

A boy from the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation sits on a bridge over a channel on on Thursday, June 25, 2015. crowdfunding campaign is underway to pay Ottawa's portion of an all-weather road for a reserve under one of the longest boil-water advisories in Canada.

THE CANADIAN PRESS / JOHN WOODS

A boy from the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation sits on a bridge over a channel on on Thursday, June 25, 2015. crowdfunding campaign is underway to pay Ottawa's portion of an all-weather road for a reserve under one of the longest boil-water advisories in Canada.

 

At the turn of the 20th century, Winnipeg was beset with the problems that come when people do not have access to reliable and clean water. In the 1870s Winnipeggers collected rainwater, used private wells or bought from water men who delivered river water for a price.

In 1880, the city offered a generous deal to a private company to supply water drawn and minimally processed from the Assiniboine River. In 1900, the city developed a municipal system based on artesian wells, but there were almost no water mains in the working-class, disproportionately immigrant North End.

The rapidly growing city ricocheted from one public health crisis to another, many of them related to insufficient and poor quality water. There were fires. There was disease. For example, in 1904, Winnipeg's death rate from typhoid, sometimes called Red River fever, was 24.85 per 10,000, higher than any other major North American or European city.

By 1906, the city and the province acknowledged the need for a permanent and public solution to Winnipeg's ongoing water problems. In 1913, they set their sights on what a city report described as "practically inexhaustible supply" of clean, good tasting water from Shoal Lake.

If the officials involved in developing this plan thought much about the Anishinaabe people of Shoal Lake, they left little evidence of it. Newspaper accounts and government reports made only occasional and dismissive mention of the "Indians" for whom Indian Bay was obviously named.

The unvarnished colonialism of the Indian Act empowered the federal government to act, and it did so in 1915 by selling land, lake bed and islands of the Shoal Lake 40 reserve to the Greater Winnipeg Water District.

The city paid the federal government $3 an acre for 355 acres of Shoal Lake 40's land on the shore of Indian Bay and 50 cents an acre for lake bed and islands.

Work on the cement aqueduct that would carry water from Shoal Lake to Winnipeg began in 1914. This was a costly and ambitious project, especially as the First World War was breaking out. At one point, 2,500 men worked building the aqueduct. In 1918, the water began to flow; Winnipeg's water supply has been secure ever since.

The people of Shoal Lake 40 aren't mentioned on the monument that celebrates the Winnipeg Aqueduct at Stephen Juba Park. But this history is well-known to Shoal Lake residents.

Their community was cut off and made an artificial island. They have been on a boil-water advisory for 18 years, which is about as long as such boil-water advisories have been issued. Without permanent road access there is no garbage removal, emergency and postal service on the "island."

Earlier this month, there was hope all three levels of government had developed a meaningful plan to build a road connecting Shoal Lake 40 to the Trans-Canada Highway. On June 25, with written confirmation that the city and the province were ready to commit to construction and a verbal promise of "good news" from the federal government, Chief Erwin Redsky attempted to move the conversation forward by holding a celebration of the so-called Freedom Road.

Winnipeg's deputy mayor Mike Pagtakhan committed $1 million for a third of the road design and also promised that as soon as the design is completed, the city will do its part in making sure the road will be constructed.

Pagtakhan also turned sod with Chief Redsky on the permanent bridge across the canal that would connect Freedom Road to Shoal Lake, funded solely by Winnipeg.

Manitoba's Municipal Government Minister Drew Caldwell committed $1 million to design the road and also committed in principle to fulfil its share of the actual construction of the road.

Then federal minister Greg Rickford, responsible for the natural resources and economic development for northern Ontario, came to the podium. He spoke eloquently about how the Conservative government knows how important infrastructure is to a community's economy and well-being. He advertised the Conservatives' action plan. It felt as though he was going to make a meaningful announcement.

Instead, Rickford repeated the year-old commitment of $1 million solely to the design of the road. That's it.

As with the engineering marvel of the aqueduct, for the people who require infrastructure, it is delivery rather than design that matters most. The British North America Act makes Indian Affairs the responsibility of the federal government. One third of Freedom Road is actually on the reserve. Surely this means the federal government is obliged to pay its part in ameliorating the worst of the problems they created when they inked the deal to take Shoal Lake 40's resources and land in 1915.

But what should Winnipeggers do if the federal government will not act, if it continues to keep us all in the most patently unethical of social relations, drinking the water of people who are themselves deprived of it? At fundrazr.com/campaigns/810jw4, Rick Harp has set up an all-or-nothing crowdsourcing campaign to raise the $10 million the federal government refuses to commit. Within a few days it has attracted about $40,000 in pledges and the number keeps growing.

The people of Shoal Lake should not have to depend on the goodwill of individual people in Winnipeg. We should not have to hold a digital-age bake sale. But if the federal government will not fulfil its obligations, many of us feel we have to do something to at least try to move toward reconciliation about this awful history of our clean water.

 

Peter Ives is a political science professor at the University of Winnipeg. Adele Perry is a history professor at the University of Manitoba and vice-president of the Canadian Historical Association.

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