Shoal Lake No. 40 First Nation, a small community just off the Trans-Canada Highway near the Manitoba-Ontario border, has declared a state of emergency.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/5/2015 (2354 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

Shoal Lake No. 40 First Nation, a small community just off the Trans-Canada Highway near the Manitoba-Ontario border, has declared a state of emergency.

While this declaration of emergency was made just last week, the community has been mired in a de facto impasse since their ancestral land was expropriated by the City of Winnipeg in 1913 to construct an aqueduct to source Winnipeg's water supply. The residents were forced to relocate into Ontario, and their peninsula was severed into a man-made island.

It has been both a perpetual and debilitating struggle for the small First Nation to survive against the imposed and powerful interests of a large urban centre. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights staff have described this situation as "a whole cascade of human rights" violations.

Despite their proximity to the Trans-Canada Highway and a freshwater lake, Shoal Lake No. 40 has neither road access nor potable water. Many lives have been lost crossing the ice and water that continue to separate their homes from the mainland. All of the residents have had dangerous, close calls and many have moved away from the community to avoid the additional risks, inconveniences and costs associated with living there.

The inevitable deterioration of the "ferry" has now cut off essential water shipments, access to groceries and prompt medical attention, but even when operational, the vessel barely made life possible.

While these conditions are appalling, what is truly disheartening is that Winnipeg has, through frequent meetings under the Shoal Lake 40 tripartite agreement, been intimately aware of the many negative implications its water diversion causes. Detailed accounts of hardship and of those who have perished are recorded in 25 years of annual agreement reports.

Yet Winnipeg still allows its water to be drawn from this community without adequately redressing these direct ramifications.

This past winter, Maclean's reporter Nancy McDonald gave Winnipeg the dubious distinction of "Canada's most racist city." Although not mentioned in her article, the story of Winnipeg's water supply and its effect on Shoal Lake No. 40 are arguably one of the most poignant demonstrations of the city's alleged racism.

Safe drinking water, vital to life, is being withdrawn from the lake through an exploitive system that benefits Winnipeg's citizens at the direct expense of Shoal Lake No. 40 members. In a recently held public forum in response to McDonald's article, Wab Kinew, the chairman of Mayor Brian Bowman's indigenous advisory circle, stated racism is evident when the quality of your health care or education is decided or influenced by who your ancestors are. Shoal Lake's ongoing lack of access to clean drinking water, along with its lack of ready access to health care, are clear examples of institutional racism that must be addressed if Winnipeg truly wants to counter the racist label it has been given.

In the meantime, until the situation is remedied, Winnipeg's association with this gross injustice will sully its name in both the national and international community.

The recently declared state of emergency has garnered a flurry of national media attention. Clint Curle, the head of stakeholder relations at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, has confirmed the impact of Winnipeg's water supply on Shoal Lake No. 40 will soon be highlighted at the museum. Maude Barlow, the former senior adviser on water to the UN secretary general, visited Shoal Lake No. 40 this past month to draw attention to the First Nation's imposed inequity.

Other notable guests who have visited the community include environmental activist David Suzuki and the International Joint Commission.

Stories of the long-standing boil-water advisory, the continued fatalities as residents face treacherous conditions to meet their basic needs and states of emergency in a tenuous existence will continue to bring embarrassment to the city of Winnipeg until sufficient action is taken.

Shoal Lake No. 40 is asking the federal government to assist with the costs associated with ferry repairs, as well as to provide a shuttle to allow access to and from the community in the interim. These temporary measures will help deal with the immediate crisis, but Shoal Lake recognizes these actions may also prolong the agony. Further commitment and funding are needed by all levels of government to truly address this issue.

The municipal, provincial and federal governments have each committed $1 million for a design study for the all-weather access road the community has termed the Freedom Road -- which will cost an estimated $30 million. Although Winnipeg has indicated its commitment to assist in the funding of the Freedom Road, no funds have been provided for its construction at this point.

 

Christie McLeod is the executive assistant at the Mondetta Charity Foundation. To learn more about this issue and to sign a letter demanding action by the federal government, visit canadians.org/water.