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Living in isolation

Shoal Lake gives Winnipeg water, but band must endure consequences

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Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press

Young residents of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation gather on the main dock to their man-made island to fish Wednesday during a special event marking the 100th anniversary for the flooding of their land to provide water for the City of Winnipeg.

SHOAL LAKE 40 FIRST NATION — The first time Linda Redsky fell through the ice, she was heading back to her island reserve after a day in Kenora.

"I remember being under the water because it was a really clear night, and I could see the ice floating around above me, and I could see the stars," she said. "I kept grabbing at the ice but it just kept breaking."

Redsky’s husband, who’d gone to town with her, lay down across the ice, shimmied out to the hole and hauled her out. Then the two crawled the rest of the way to the shores of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation.

"By the time we got there, our hair was just frozen, our clothes were just frozen," said Redsky.

Shoal Lake 40 has been an isolated island since 1914, when Winnipeg began building a 155-kilometre aqueduct to pipe in water from the picture-perfect lake to the capital. That forced the band off the land it occupied for hundreds of years and onto a man-made island, which stymied economic self-sufficiency and forced band members to transport water and groceries by ferry in summer or haul them over the ice in winter.

Adding insult to the century-old injury, Shoal Lake itself has not had clean drinking water for nearly 20 years. Though Winnipeg enjoys some of the safest drinking water in Canada, the reserve is under a boil-water advisory and plans for a water-treatment plant were shelved three years ago.

Chief Erwin Redsky said most Winnipeggers don’t realize the damage their tap water did to his band or how that has resulted in chronic economic inequality.

"They turn the water tap on and everything’s beautiful. On the other end, no," said Redsky. "It’s killing my community but life is booming on the other end — beautiful buildings, jobs, opportunities, clean water."

On Wednesday, in an effort to shine a light on Shoal Lake 40’s troubles, Redsky invited provincial officials, staff from the city’s water and waste department and representatives from the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to tour the island reserve and the canal that cuts it off from the mainland and hear from band members first-hand.

The museum irritates the members of the First Nation because the building is being serviced by Shoal Lake water and will feature exhibits about water rights even though the band continues to be denied access to clean drinking water or a year-round way on and off the reserve.

When the band was relocated onto a nearby peninsula in the early 1900s, the city also built a canal and a long dike to divert swampy water away from the aqueduct’s intake. That canal left Shoal Lake 40’s 260 residents living on a virtual island for nearly a century. Only in the last two years have the city and province chipped in to build a bridge over the canal and a winter road that’s passable for a couple of cold months.

Redsky said the solution starts with a permanent $25-million road connecting the reserve to the Trans-Canada Highway. So far, the city and the province have pledged $1 million for design work, but the federal government has made no promises, and cash for construction may be far off.

But Redsky and band councillors say the road could solve many other woes caused by Winnipeg’s aqueduct. It would clear the way for the construction of a water-treatment plant, shelved by Ottawa in part because access to the reserve is hampered. And it would allow for economic development such as cottage lots, a marina, a walleye fishery or logging. For decades, the city effectively barred the band from pursuing those ideas for fear Winnipeg’s water would be contaminated. But, the city’s new $300-million water-treatment plant has allayed many of those fears.

More than jobs and industry, band members say a proper road would save lives. Many health-care professionals won’t travel to the reserve over the ice, and it’s difficult to get in materials for new housing.

Getting water or groceries means first asking around the community to find out what route is safest across the ice, which is often only a hand-width thick. One elder, who has fallen through several times, walks across with a long stick held horizontally to help catch her if she goes through the ice. Along the shore of the reserve are two crosses commemorating cousins who died one night walking home from work at the aqueduct intake. One man said he’d fallen in dozens of times.

Shoal Lake gives life, "but it also takes life, too," said an emotional Lorne Redsky, who spoke during a meeting at which band members shared their stories.

"I’ve lost a lot of family and friends" said Lorne Redsky. "Some are careless, but some are just trying to get home."

Location of Shoal Lake community

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