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Visiting Shoal Lake 40 – “I don’t look for sympathy, I look for knowledge, for justice”

Waking yesterday morning I knew we would be crossing the increasingly thin ice to reach the community of Shoal Lake 40. Part of me I’ll admit, was a little nervous. And the larger part of me realized how entirely unacceptable it is that I will never have to make the choice to cross thinning ice again… until I visit Shoal Lake 40 again, or there is justice for this community.

Why do people need to cross water – in a barge over the summer, solid ice during the winter and the sketchy periods starting now and in the fall when the ice begins to open or close up – to have access to food, to jobs, to hospitals? 

Put simply, so over 600,000 + residents of Winnipeg can have clean drinking water.

Shoal Lake 40 has been on drinking water advisory for 18 years.

9 people have lost their lives crossing and falling through the ice in recent memory. Daryl Redsky, member of Shoal Lake 40 who led us across the ice, suspects there will be about another week or so before people won’t be able to cross the ice anymore by foot.

Here’s what I learned in visiting this community and being led on a tour of their Museum of Canadian Human Rights Violations, an exhibit of historical documents, maps and pictures presented on the wall of their community center, in the same space as a skating rink where kids play hockey.  Their museum is a direct response to the new Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg which in no small irony has a Garden of Contemplation healing waters pool filled with Shoal Lake Water.

I was there as part of our Energy East Our Risk – Their Reward Prairies tour alongside Maude Barlow, Ben Gotschall of Bold Nebraska, Chris Gallaway of our Prairies regional office, Jobb of our Winnipeg chapter and Alex Paterson of Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition. we were also joined by a journalist with the Kenora Daily Miner News.   

Stewart Redsky, member of Shoal Lake 40 led us on the tour of the museum.

“This body of water is like a time capsule,” Stewart said. “Shoal Lake 40 is many years behind in our development yet we are 20km from the TransCanada Highway. Today you will see the results of what was done by humans to supply Winnipeg’s drinking water… on the better side of the aqueduct.”

So how did this unfold?

The aqueduct to carry clean lake water around 140km to Winnipeg was finished in 1919. Built over an active Indigenous burial ground. Between 1914-1919 the original Anishnaabe village at the mouth of the Falcon River was forced to relocate to a nearby peninsula to avoid the aqueduct development and exposure to Spanish Influenza.

The peninsula were subsequently made into a man-made island by a canal that was part of the water diversion works. Over 3,000 acres reserve lands and grave resources were stolen (Stewart intentionally says stolen now, not expropriated), becoming City of Winnipeg property.  The reserve was split into three separate parcels.

Standing on the dykeA dyke was built between Winnipeg’s drinking water source drawn from the main part of Shoal Lake to the east and the Falcon River which drains the muskegs and Falcon Lake to the west. Falcon River drains swamp lands and is impacted by sewage and intense cottage development on Falcon Lake. The diversion dyke was built out of Shoal Lake 40 gravel and likely contains sacred remains. This is also gravel badly needed now for the dirt roads that can become impassible in wet seasons.

In the 1990s simple running water systems were installed in the homes in Shoal Lake 40 but there is not adequate treatment on these systems to make the surface water safe to drink. It’s low grade Falcon River water that reaches the unprotected Shoal Lake 40 taps first. Since a 1997 outbreak of Cryptosporidiosis, the community has been on a boil water advisory, one of the longest advisories in Canada.

Dyke separating Falcon lake from Shoal LakeStewart Redsky described people putting washcloths over their taps before bathing, to catch debris. He described skin conditions and problems. In a conversation, it came up that people experiencing digestive issues now and again are likely getting sick as a result of not rinsing their plates with bottled water before eating.

In one of the pictures on the wall of the museum, you can clearly see a colour difference between Falcon lake (which the river flows into) separated from Winnipeg’s Shoal Lake water source by the dyke.

In 1989 the community entered a Tripartite Agreement with Winnipeg and Manitoba meant to promote and create jobs to replace jobs and economic opportunity lost when the cottage lot development on Shoal lake 40 was stopped.

According to a handout at the museum, 0 full time jobs have been successfully created under the 25 year old agreement, in large part because there is no access to the community.

Shoal Lake 40’s troubles don’t end with water.

As a result of their isolation, they don’t have adequate access to deal with their garbage. They are left with digging and rotating pits overflowing with garbage. When Stewart explained this situation, and why old, and full septic tanks are now being dumped on land, chosen for its location to have the least negative impact, it was clear that this is a raw situation for him and the community.

They do not choose to live this way, but are forced to live this way.  

Pipeline is small dotted line above Falcon LakeThe transfer of this sewage into groundwater and into the surrounding lakes is of clear concern to the community.

Adding to the risks the community faces is TransCanada’s proposed Energy East pipeline. It traverses above Falcon Lake and High Lake which drain into the area and present a risk to contaminating Falcon River and Shoal Lake.

In our sharing circle at the end of our visit, Preston Redsky, a Shoal Lake 40 single father, described an elder of the community that used to visit him every morning for coffee. “He told me, you youth, you have to stop this. You have to stop this pipeline.” He intends of following this guidance.

Daryl and Stewart agree, the pipeline is a risk they should not have to take.

Is there hope?

Start of Freedom RoadSome would say yes.

There have been two full-blown designs for a water treatment plant in past years. At the tender stage, the federal government decided in both cases that it was simply too expensive or complicated to build on a man-made island.

That is why Freedom Road is so important.

 “Having a road means a water treatment plant. It means an economy, it means survival as a community,” said Cuyler Cotton, a policy analyst with the First Nation in a recent Globe and Mail article. Cuyler helped guide us on the paper trail part of the tour inside the Museum, Stewart Redsky led much of the tour to community locations.

Also reported in the Globe and Mail, “The community estimates an all-weather road would cost about $30-million. The federal government, Manitoba and the city of Winnipeg have all chipped in Stewart Redsky$1-million each for a feasibility study, but there are no firm commitments beyond that.”

To Stewart, “My family calls me a broken record,” he explains. “Until we see a firm commitment from the governments for this money, it is hard to believe this will change. People here are lacking hope.”

The tour ended in the recreational room off of the community centre with two pool tables which also now houses rows of large bottles of water after the previous building’s floor collapsed under the weight.

“Imagine your family, your elder picking up one of these to make their tea every morning, to make their food,” added Stewart. I lifted the heavy bottle. I imagined bathing my son in the water.

“When you leave to the better side of the aqueduct, I want you to know. I am not asking for your sympathy, I am asking for your knowledge, for your awareness, for justice.”

Running my hands under clean water in Winnipeg later that evening, I know I will never forget this. I want to do my part to spread this awareness. And demand justice. Nothing short of Freedom Road, access to safe drinking water and sanitation, to garbage disposal is what this community not only deserves after so many years, but what this community has rights to.

Please share this and demand better from our federal government, Manitoba government and City of Winnipeg. They need to make Freedom Road happen. 

See CBC Manitoba coverage. See  Winnipeg Free Press Coverage