Driving from Winnipeg to Iskatewizaagegan (Shoal Lake 39) we began to truly appreciate the distance the aqueduct from Shoal Lake, supplying clean drinking water to 600 000 + residents.
With me was Maude Barlow, National Chairperson, Council of Canadians, Chris Gallaway, Prairies Regional Organizer and Jobb with out local Winnipeg Chapter and Alex Paterson of Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition and Ben Gotschall, a Nebraskan rancher fighting Keystone XL with Bold Nebraska.
Arriving in Iskatewizaagegan, we were greeted warmly by Chief Fawn Wapioke and led to the community’s roundhouse. Clearly a special and meaningful place, we sat in a circle and began our dialogue with a welcome from Elder Steven Kejick.
From him, we learned of the significance of the roundhouse and the clans represented by animal pelts in the centre of the room. He spoke of being a young child, watching his brother help build the pipeline TransCanada now wants to convert to carry 1.1 million barrels of crude, including tar sands diluted bitumen, through their territory on the way to a new deep sea water export port in Saint, John New Brunswick. Back then he would scoop water from Shoal Lake, drinking it directly.
We watched as elder Josephine Mandamin, known for her commitment to the protection of water, performed a water ceremony. A commitment that has seen her walk over 17,000 kms around the Great Lakes and other water bodies raising awareness of Indigenous knowledge and the importance of water to all life and the multitude of threats clean water faces – pipelines, oil tankers, nuclear shipments, oil by rail, over consumption, other sources of pollution.
She honoured the water. We were honoured to witness this and hear her important words.
We heard from Chief Wapioke about the history of the community that was once self sufficient, with fisheries, gardening and wild rice providing for people’s livelihoods. Water, Shoal Lake, was central to all of this. The blasting of nearby rapids related to sawmill and mining ambitions changed the nature of the Shoal lake watershed, seeing water that had previously flowed from Shoal Lake into Lake of the Woods reversed. This contributed to rising waters which made wild rice planting difficult. The flooding also meant that previous islands used for gardening, potatoes playing an important role, could no longer be used. The community also faced the realities of a residential school located away from the community and were no longer able to sustain their fisheries based on a government decision in the 1970s.
It is in this context that the risks presented by a massive tar sands pipeline are being understood. A tar sands pipeline that runs through this territory and the Shoal Lake watershed.
We also heard from Rebecca Mandamin a youth member, part of Ferda Water, who has traveled widely sharing the message of water protection and Indigenous knowledge and rights, the role of Anishinaabewomen as the protectors of water.
The presence of three female Chiefs, Chief Wapioke, Chief Sara Mainville of Couchinching First Nation and Chief Patricia Big George of Big Island First Nation in the roundhouse testament to this commitment. Testament to the strong and growing opposition to Energy East in Treaty 3 territory.
After our conversation we joined together in a beautiful lunch, and headed down to the landing where our tour delegates would later cross the increasingly weak ice in these warm days, to hear from members of Shoal Lake 40 on the human rights violations they are experiencing as a result of supplying Winnipeg clean, safe drinking water. Shoal Lake 40 has been on drinking water advisory for 18 years.