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The fight for basic necessities in Shoal Lake 40

A community that was stripped of its land to supply Winnipeg with water while having none of its own to drink is the subject of a crowdfunding effort called Road to Reconciliation. Aiming to raise $10 million, Freedom Road would give the nearly 300 residents of Shoal Lake 40, a First Nation reserve that straddles the Manitoba-Ontario border, access to basic necessities they’ve lacked for a century.

“One you know the full story of how Winnipeg got its water, you can’t unknow that,” says crowdfunding initiator Rick Harp, who lives in Winnipeg and traces his ancestry to a Northern Saskatchewan First Nation. “What Winnipeg is today would have been impossible without Shoal Lake 40’s water.”

At the turn of the 20th century, Winnipeg was plagued by health crises and fires, many of which arose from lack of clean water. In 1914, it began construction on an aquifer, splitting the Shoal Lake reserve, digging a canal and, in the process, turning Shoal Lake 40 into an island – leaving residents only seasonal access to the mainland. There are no groceries or gas on the island, nor garbage removal, sewage or water treatment. Emergency services can only come sometimes, and there is little access to jobs, especially since Winnipeg paid the community not to develop near its water intake.

Today, the contaminated water remains under an 18-year-long boil-water advisory, one of the longest in Canadian history.

“If our government can’t support human rights for all Canadians, Canadians have to rise up and make sure it happens,” contributor Lynda Trono comments on the FundRazr page. Other contributors have suggested a levy on their Winnipeg water bills toward a Shoal Lake 40 treatment plant – or simply making their water bills payable directly to the source.

Freedom road is a $25-30 million project and Winnipeg and Manitoba have each pledged $10 million. The feds refuse to commit, and at the same time say a water treatment plant is too expensive to build without road access. Regardless, Shoal Lake has begun construction any way it can. “This road is being built,” says Cuyler Cotton, who does communications for the band. “If we’re going to survive as a community, we’re going to have to build this thing. They’re going to have to stop us. This is Freedom Road for a reason.”

 

First published in Sept/Oct 2015 issue of This Magazine

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