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This article was published 6/11/2014 (1015 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The federal government and city hall were mum Thursday on calls by a cross-border water watchdog to investigate the damage done to two Ontario First Nations by Winnipeg's water system.
In a letter sent Monday, the International Joint Commission says it's not clear two bands, including Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, were properly compensated when Winnipeg began piping drinking water from the pristine Ontario lake a century ago. The IJC suggested long-standing complaints by the First Nations have merit and asked Ottawa to report back on how the problem might be fixed.
"The commission would appreciate the governments' determination regarding the City of Winnipeg's compliance with the provisions of the 1914 order, specifically regarding the use of water and compensation for damages," wrote the IJC's two chairs.
The IJC, set up in 1909 and comprising experts appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S President Barack Obama, resolves boundary water disputes between the United States and Canada and acts as an independent adviser to the two governments. It has weighed in on contentious issues such as water levels on the Great Lakes and North Dakota's Devils Lake outlet, which threatened to contaminate the Red River.
In 1914, when Winnipeg built the aqueduct, the IJC authorized the project as long as the bands, and any other third parties, were properly compensated for any damage.
Officials from the IJC visited Shoal Lake over the summer to tour the reserves. Shoal Lake 40 is isolated by a canal meant to divert mucky water away from Winnipeg's huge intake pipe. No proper, all-season bridge has ever been built over the canal, so the band is an island in summer, hindering any economic development.
The IJC investigators also heard now-familiar stories of nine band members who died crossing the lake in winter, and learned about the 18-year-old boil-water advisory in place on the reserve.
"First Nation No. 40 alleges the diversion has continuously injured them and they have never been compensated beyond token compensation made at the time the diversion was constructed," wrote the IJC to Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada as well as the U.S. State Department.
Shoal Lake 40 lawyer Bruce McIvor said the IJC's letter is rare and significant.
"What they've basically said is this issue is of concern, the complaint has merit and needs to be resolved," said McIvor.
It's not clear yet when the federal government might reply or whether it will ask the City of Winnipeg to begin negotiations on a new compensation agreement with the Shoal Lake bands. Calls and emails to the federal government were not returned Thursday.
The City of Winnipeg said it is reviewing the letter and will respond to the IJC in a timely manner.
In a release Thursday, Shoal Lake Chief Erwin Redsky said the IJC's support is welcome.
"We welcome international oversight because, despite their fine words, Canadians have proven incapable of policing themselves. We look forward to the IJC's process of accountability," he said.
The IJC's interest in Shoal Lake was triggered two years ago by the city's plan to sell water to the Rural Municipality of West St. Paul and then to Rosser and CentrePort, a move the two Shoal Lake bands opposed. Those bands threatened to go to court and earned the backing of the IJC, which scuttled Winnipeg's plan to extend water service to CentrePort.