Justice almost within reach for Shoal Lake #40 First Nation

This week, I had the honour of spending a deeply moving, and incredibly inspiring day with people of the Shoal Lake #40 First Nation on the Manitoba – Ontario border.

Their story is one that more Canadians need to hear because it can tell us so much about the deeply flawed relationship between the federal government and First Nations. Their story is also important because the people of Shoal Lake have their own solution to some of their most pressing concerns and today, after decades of struggle, that solution is now almost within reach.

One hundred years ago the Shoal Lake #40 community was relocated as part of the development of the city of Winnipeg’s water supply system.  One of the cruel ironies of life in Shoal Lake is that while water from the lake is piped 150 km to Winnipeg to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of people in that city, the people of Shoal Lake #40 must rely on bottled water because they don’t have an adequate drinking water system of their own.

Critically, however, the lack of safe, clean drinking water is only of the injustices facing the people of Shoal Lake.

Shoal Lake is so close to the Trans Canada Highway that community members can hear the trucks at night. Despite this, Shoal Lake is remarkably isolated. Construction of the Winnipeg water system turned the point of land on which the community was relocated into an artificial island and this has had a devastating impact on their economy and their safety.

When I visited the community on Wednesday, I drove through a neighbouring First Nation and then crossed the water to Shoal Lake #40 on a tiny barge run by the community.  In the middle of winter, community members can drive across the ice. But in the weeks on either side of a hard freeze, they pick their way on foot across the often treacherous ice.

Because the community is isolated in this way, many of the necessities of life, from jobs to groceries to medical care, are all on the other side of the water. The high cost of transporting equipment and supplies to the island is also one of the reasons that a new water treatment facility has not been built, even though for years the federal government said that drinking water for Shoal Lake #40 was a high priority.

During a public information session organized by Shoal Lake #40 this Wednesday, community members explained that they often had little choice but to cross the water in dangerous conditions, and that has led to the loss of lives and to many terrifying close calls. It has also meant tragic delays in getting patients to hospital and has delayed to police and emergency responders getting to the community.

Community member Lorne Redsky told the gathering, “Every one of needs water but living on the water takes lives too.” He said, “I’ve lost a lot of family. I’ve lost a lot of friends. Some of them were careless. Some of the were just trying to get home.”

Sharon Redsky told the gathering, “There’s a huge sacrifice that this community is making so that people in Winnipeg can have clean water.”

This week’s gathering was held in the latest step in a long struggle to overcome the community’s isolation. Shoal Lake #40 wants a permanent bridge over the aquaduct and an all weather road to connect that bridge to the highway. Such a road would make it easier and safer for community members to go to work and for emergency vehicles to enter the community. It would also reduce barriers to establishing essential services in the community, such as their own water treatment plant, and help develop local businesses and employment opportunities.

Shoal Lake has already made considerable progress toward what the community calls “Freedom Road.” They are now working with the City of Winnipeg and the Manitoba government and together they have opened a rough winter snow road. Winnipeg and Manitoba have also committed their support for a permanent all weather road. Unfortunately, further progress is now being blocked because the federal government — which has jurisdiction in respect to reserve lands and on-reserve services — has not made a similar commitment.

The Manitoba government, the City of Winnipeg, the nearby Ontario city of Kenora, the Grand Council of Treaty 3, and the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg all sent delegations to this week’s gathering to tour the community and to hear the testimony of community members. The federal government was represented by an empty chair.

Chief Erwin Redsky said, “We have a solution. We are building the road. We just have one person missing from the room.”