Early Monday, representatives of the Manitoba government, the City of Winnipeg and Shoal Lake 40 First Nation gathered for their annual meeting as part of the Tripartite Agreement. With the federal government, they have been doing so each year since 1989. That is a lot of meetings — 27, to be exact.

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This article was published 13/12/2016 (1748 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

Early Monday, representatives of the Manitoba government, the City of Winnipeg and Shoal Lake 40 First Nation gathered for their annual meeting as part of the Tripartite Agreement. With the federal government, they have been doing so each year since 1989. That is a lot of meetings — 27, to be exact.

At the end of the meeting, Shoal Lake 40 Chief Erwin Redsky announced good and sorely needed news: a three-way funding agreement between the province, the city and the federal government to build Freedom Road, linking Shoal Lake 40 to the Trans-Canada Highway, has been reached.

I’m a historian, and in the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time researching the history of how we all got to this point. How Winnipeg came to rely on drinking water from Shoal Lake, about 180 kilometres to the east, is a complicated story and a difficult one. The critical events occurred from 1913 to 1919, but they have implications and obligations that endure to this day, ones that Monday’s funding agreement will, hopefully, go some of the way to addressing.

In the early 1900s, Winnipeg was an ambitious, growing and conflicted city. It was also badly in need of a better supply of drinking water. In 1912, Thomas Russ Deacon was elected mayor on a Shoal Lake-water platform, pledging: "I am in favour of providing at once for the people of Winnipeg an ample and permanent supply of pure soft water, which will forever remove the menace now hanging over Winnipeg of a water famine and the consequent danger of conflagration and sickness."

But the land that was needed for the planned aqueduct was on the reserve lands of an Anishinaabe people, Shoal Lake 40. Late in 1913, the federal government’s Department of Indian Affairs granted the Greater Winnipeg Water District permission to do preliminary work on the reserve. The next year, they undertook a process that stripped the community of its right to gravel and sand used in building projects.

In 1914, mayor Deacon travelled to Ottawa to meet with federal officials, and soon after, the federal government announced it would use a clause within the Indian Act, Section 46, that allowed it to take, without any consultation or process, reserve lands if they were deemed necessary for "public works."

In 1915, the federal government "transferred" more than 3,000 acres of Shoal Lake 40’s reserve land to the Greater Winnipeg Water District for the sum of $1,500. The interests of the settler city were placed above those of indigenous people, even to lands supposedly reserved for them. For Shoal Lake 40, the consequences of these events have been enormous.

The physical impact was that the reserve was cut into three and the community made into an artificial island.

A lot has changed in the century since then. But Shoal Lake 40 remains an artificial island and the people’s daily life there is profoundly shaped by their imposed and sustained "isolation" enacted in the city’s interests. Shoal Lake 40 has been under a boil-water advisory for almost two decades. The aging ferry that acts as a lifeline for the community fails too often, as it did last Friday, at the worst possible moment, as the community prepared for freeze-up.

The plaques and monuments to the Shoal Lake aqueduct that dot Winnipeg don’t mention this difficult history or this difficult present. They focus instead on the engineering genius that allowed clever men to devise a way to get water to travel such distances and how access to good, clean water has improved the lives of Winnipeggers.

But there are other stories and other histories of Winnipeg’s water that need to be told and are being told. History is rarely easy. It unsettles us and makes demands on the present.

In this case, it asks all of us who benefit from Shoal Lake water to recognize and live up to some of the most basic obligations that we owe to the indigenous people who have paid, and are still paying, such a steep price for the water we drink.

Monday’s news about a funding agreement for Freedom Road is a good and hopeful step towards this one piece of reckoning with the relationship between indigenous people, settlers and governments. Of course, Shoal Lake 40 has seen hopeful signs and heard cheerful words before. Those of us who have benefited the most from Shoal Lake water need to make sure the most recent announcement doesn’t become another empty promise.

Adele Perry is a professor of history at the University of Manitoba and vice-president of the Canadian Historical Association.