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The price of comfort

Shoal Lake suffers for city's clean water

About 100 residents from Shoal Lake showed up at the Manitoba Legislature for a rally in December. Shoal Lake is the source of Winnipeg's drinking water, but the First Nation has been on a boil water advisory for over 15 years.


About 100 residents from Shoal Lake showed up at the Manitoba Legislature for a rally in December. Shoal Lake is the source of Winnipeg's drinking water, but the First Nation has been on a boil water advisory for over 15 years.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/1/2015 (2075 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


I can't make a cup of coffee, run a bath for my son or even turn on my kitchen tap without thinking about my trip last weekend.

I live in Winnipeg and on Sunday I made the 2 1/2-hour drive out to Shoal Lake, where our water has come from for more than a century. In order for the aqueduct intake to supply water to us in Winnipeg, "at our end of the pipe" as they say, the Shoal Lake No. 40 First Nation, has been made into an artificial island. The media, including the Winnipeg Free Press, have been reporting for years on the chain of truly horrendous and ironic hardships this causes and the history of the broken agreements and ignored negotiations that allows it to persist.

Before I went to Shoal Lake No. 40 to visit what they're calling their "Museum for Canadian Human Rights Violations," I knew the basic facts. The community has been under a boil-water advisory for almost 20 years because the polluted water that runs into Shoal Lake from Falcon Creek and Falcon Lake is diverted away from the aqueduct intake to the Shoal Lake No. 40 area. Part of this diversion is the canal that isolates Shoal Lake No. 40. Because there is no road access to the community, two separate plans for a water-filtration plant there have been cancelled. All the drinking and potable water they use is brought by truck in five-gallon jugs. This is just the beginning of the cruel set of ironies.

The knock-on effects from not having all-year road access include lack of emergency services, no mail service, no school bus service, problems with solid and liquid waste disposal and an inability to develop economically in order to keep people in the community. During our visit, our very gracious hosts, including Chief Erwin Redsky, Stewart Redsky and Cuyler Cotton, noted this is the good time of year since the ice road across the lake means that they can come and go as they please, although for insurance reasons many companies and services will not cross the ice road. During the summer months, things are much worse. They depend on the ferry to get to work, school, shopping and everything else that happens outside the small community. These daily inconveniences are costly and prohibitive, but it is the freeze and thaw periods every fall and spring that are truly harrowing. Many lives have been lost to sudden and unexpected breaks in the ice. They call the initial freeze and thaw periods "Alcatraz Week."

Of course, knowing the facts of a situation is very different from experiencing them and meeting the people whose lives are shaped by them. I also learned countless more details, especially as we walked along the dike that separates the clean Winnipeg water from the Shoal Lake No. 40 water. The dike was built using all the gravel from the First Nation, so they don't have gravel for their own roads on the island. And it is difficult and expensive to truck gravel in due to the access problems. Being in Shoal Lake No. 40 drove home to me how colonialism persists in Canada today. As is all too common across Manitoba and Canada, key resources such as water and land are secured for one community through broken agreements and false promises to aboriginal communities who have lived caring for the land and water for countless generations. And bureaucracy and paternalistic governments at all levels fail to address the situation. And in this case, Shoal Lake No. 40 is not asking for much.

Many of these problems could be solved with a bridge and a road. In the last few years, the community used volunteer labour to construct the Freedom Road, a winter road that is also passable in the summer as long as there's not too much rain and a temporary bridge over the canal. Apparently, the City of Winnipeg has committed to build a permanent bridge, although it would connect only to the temporary road. If the City of Winnipeg, the Manitoba and Ontario governments and the federal government would commit to funding the construction of the Freedom Road as a permanent road, many of the hardships could be mitigated.

What struck me was the incredible resilience, resourcefulness and openness of the community. I was even more struck by the energy and creativity they have put in trying to educate us, here in Winnipeg, about where our water comes from. There is great documentation of this on their website, Many of the people there have been reliving the tragedies of friends and family falling through the ice and lack of emergency medical service in order to make us see the consequences of our clean water.

In constructing their Museum for Canadian Human Rights Violation, the people at Shoal Lake No. 40 draw our attention to the particular ironies of the newly opened and much-celebrated Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The CMHR celebrates the healing power of water, connects it to First Nations values and uses Shoal Lake water for the pools of water in the Garden of Contemplation, as do all buildings in Winnipeg.

"You've heard of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights now come visit, 100 years in the making, the Museum for Canadian Human Rights Violations," is how the pamphlet created by the band uses humour and irony to make its point. "Exhibits made possible by the Government of Canada" and directions that tell you to follow the pipe that provides the "healing waters" featured in Antoine Predock's Garden of Contemplation to its source.

This is just the latest in decades of patiently trying to raise our awareness. Back in 2007, a majority of people in the community marched all the way to Winnipeg to bring attention to the need for their Freedom Road. This event seemed to have initial success garnering a double-page article in the Free Press complete with loads of pictures. Stewart Redsky told me many children as young as seven were so excited to participate in this five-day march. But after nothing happened, these children, now teenagers, have little reason to hope we in Winnipeg will ever hear and act on their story.

As a Winnipegger, I think we need to tell our stories, living at this end of the pipe with clean water at the price of injustice and a poignant example of continuing colonialism. We need to tell our politicians, municipal, provincial and federal, that we should be able to have clean water without participating in and perpetuating this historic wrong. We should be able to pay our water bills without wondering if we should really be making the cheque out to Shoal Lake No. 40 instead.


Peter Ives is a professor of political science at the University of Winnipeg.


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Updated on Wednesday, January 28, 2015 at 10:29 AM CST: Adds photo

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