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Analysis

Mayor behind Freedom Road

Righting wrong should be model for future

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/11/2015 (510 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Declaring Shoal Lake 40's Freedom Road to be a fait accompli is a little like calling a national election only a few hours in. However, all indicators are pointing that way.

Prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau has been very clear on his commitment to Freedom Road, as has Premier Greg Selinger.

Musician Steve Bell and outgoing MP for Kildonan-St. Paul Joy Smith talk in August about plans to build Freedom Road.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Musician Steve Bell and outgoing MP for Kildonan-St. Paul Joy Smith talk in August about plans to build Freedom Road. Purchase Photo Print

Advocates for Freedom Road were concerned the City of Winnipeg might not be ready with money to match federal and provincial commitments upon completion of the road's detailed design in January. However, recent events have significantly allayed those fears.

Last Friday, I was privileged to travel to Shoal Lake 40 First Nation with seven city councillors, two aides, business leaders and representatives from various advocacy groups. We gathered on the outskirts of Winnipeg in the early morning and packed into three vans to drive out to meet Shoal Lake community members, to engage and to better understand how the aqueduct that supplies Winnipeg with its drinking water has devastated the people who have occupied that land since time immemorial.

It was remarkable to witness the grace and hospitality in which we, representatives of a city that has caused Shoal Lake 40 First Nation so much hardship and heartache, were received. Civic honours are quite possibly in order for the almost Ghandian quality their leadership has displayed throughout their decades-long ordeal.

The day itself was somewhat arduous with us packed like sardines in vans for two hours each way, delays on and off the reserve because of waiting for the decrepit ferry to transport vehicles to and from the mainland, and terrible road conditions on the reserve itself, as they have no way to access gravel to maintain roads (made worse because it had been raining for the last week).

It was difficult to hear some of their stories. As one resident was explaining the challenges of running a school with limited access to the mainland, someone from the community interrupted to ask her to tell of her brother who had died attempting to cross the ice. There was a moment of silence as she fought to keep her composure, and then she responded with the question: "Which one?"

Chief Erwin Redsky led us to the site of the aqueduct, canal and dike that supplies Winnipeg with its drinking water some 115 kilometres away.

As we stood there, he told us how the earth was excavated to create the dike. The dirt, in part, was taken from their traditional burial grounds, and we were indeed standing on the remains of his ancestors. We saw evidence of how the dike diverted polluted water (flowing in from the densely populated Falcon Lake) away from the aqueduct intake, pushing it toward their own community.

Stewart Redsky asked we relay this message home: "We take no pleasure in shaming or discrediting anyone. That is not who we are. But a wrong has been done that needs to be owned and redressed. We are your neighbours, and we are your friends."

Mayor Brian Bowman has already responded, indicating he has heard nothing but heartfelt, positive reports from council members who were able to make the journey. In a brief call to me Saturday, he reaffirmed a commitment he made last spring to the building of Freedom Road, adding although it is considered inadvisable to publicly announce line items in a budget proposal, he was happy to confirm funds to begin construction on Freedom Road are indeed represented for budget consideration, and no resistance from council members is expected.

With a chuckle he quipped: "There may well be problems with the budget, but Freedom Road won't be one of them."

It may be true that (in the words of the old spiritual) freedom is coming. But we, in Winnipeg, who have been watered by the tears of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation for more than a century, should not think this freedom is only for those struggling at the mouth of our water supply. Surely, injustice binds its perpetrators as equally as it does its victims.

It's fairly safe to say we are well on our way to a new and mutually flourishing relationship with our good neighbours at Shoal Lake 40 First Nation.

I'm praying this can be a symbol and model of a sea change in relations between non-indigenous and First Nations across our country. Freedom Road is not in itself mutuality; it only makes mutuality possible. It is not reconciliation; it's a road to reconciliation. There is still much to be done. But this is no insignificant step.

 

Steve Bell is a Winnipeg singer and songwriter. He was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2013 for his humanitarian work and for his music.

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