(Saturday, Oct 31, 2015)
Today I’m feeling about as serene as this photo I took yesterday out at Shoal Lake… because today is a rest day after a fruitful week.
Last week, close to 4000 mostly Winnipeggers signed a petition supporting public funds for the construction of Freedom Road—a 17 mile provincial grade road linking Shoal Lake 40 First Nation to the Trans Canada Highway, which will redress their century-long imposed isolation and make possible a water treatment plant to end a boil-water advisory they’ve lived under for 18 years.
Yesterday, I was privileged to travel with seven city councillors, two aids, business leaders and representatives from various advocacy groups out to Shoal Lake 40 First Nation. We gathered on the outskirts of Winnipeg in the early morning and packed into three vans to travel out to meet with the community at Shoal Lake, to engage and to better understand how the aqueduct that supplies Winnipeg with its drinking water has been so devastating to the people who have occupied that land since time immemorial.
It was a surprisingly upbeat trip. The councillors were all high spirited, in part because the day before, Mayor Bowman issued both public and private statements in essence giving his blessing to the trip and reaffirming his commitment to redress a century-long injustice in order to begin a new era of mutuality with our friends and neighbours at Shoal Lake 40—a community which, by the way, has a name, not just a number: Kekekoziibii (Hawk River).
It was remarkable to witness the grace and hospitality in which we, representatives of a city that has caused Shoal Lake 40 First Nation so much hardship and heartache, were received. I do hope the story is someday told of the almost Ghandian quality by which the leaders of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation have conducted themselves. There have been no civil disruptions; there has been no violence. There has only been a multi-decade, steadfast determination to not be annihilated, and to build sincere friendships and allies in their fight and right to survive. I do think civic honours are in order. Their determination to stay the high road has been exemplary for the rest of the country.
The day itself was somewhat arduous: two hours there and back packed like sardines in vans; delays on and off the reserve because of wait-times for the decrepit ferry to transport vehicles to and from the mainland; and terrible road conditions on the reserve itself, as they have no way to access gravel to maintin roads (made worse because it had been raining for the last week).
It was difficult to hear some of their stories. As one resident was explaining the challenges of running a school with limited access to the mainland, someone from the community interrupted to encourage her to tell of her brother who had died attempting to cross the ice. There was a moment of silence as she fought to keep composure before she responded with the question: “Which one?”
Chief Redsky led us to the site of the aqueduct, canal and water diversion dike that supplies Winnipeg’s drinking water some 70 miles away. As we stood on the dike he informed us that the earth used to create it was excavated in part from their traditional burial grounds; we were indeed standing on the remains of his ancestors. We saw evidence of how that dike diverts polluted water (flowing in from the densely populated Falcon Lake) away from the aqueduct’s intake and redirects it toward their own community.
At another point, as Chief Redsky was speaking, Stewart Redsky pulled me aside and asked if I would relay this message home: “We take no pleasure in shaming or discrediting anyone. That is not who we are. But a wrong has been done that needs to be owned and redressed. We are your neighbours, and we are your friends.”
A similar grace is evident in Chief Redsky who, last spring, when asked how he felt about the citizens of Winnipeg having to undergo a brief boil-water advisory, replied, “We don’t wish this on anyone, not even for a day.”
The city councillors didn’t get home until after 6 pm. As far as I could tell, everyone stayed fully engaged throughout. We were all deeply impacted.
Today I was surprised to receive a call from Mayor Bowman. He told me that already he has heard nothing but heartfelt, positive reports from councillors on the previous day’s journey. He wanted me to thank all those who have worked so hard to keep this issue in the public eye. He reaffirmed, in no uncertain terms, the commitment he made last spring to the building of Freedom Road and assured me that he has already been on the phone to Ottawa to keep this issue on their front burner. The Mayor then instructed that even though it is generally considered inadvisable to announce line-items in a budget proposal before it is passed, that in this case he was happy to confirm that funds to begin construction of Freedom Road are indeed represented for budget consideration, and that he expects full and glad support from council members. Finally, with a slight chuckle he quipped, “there may well be problems with the budget… but Freedom Road won’t be one of them. We all want to get this done.”
It may be true (in the words of the old spiritual) that freedom IS coming. But we, in Winnipeg, who have been watered by the tears of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation for over a century, should not think that this freedom is only for those struggling at the mouth of our water supply. Surely, injustice binds its perpetrators as equally as it does its victims.
I think it’s fairly safe to say that we are well on our way to a new and mutually flourishing relationship with our good neighbours at Shoal Lake 40 First Nation. I’m praying that this can be a symbol and model of a sea change in relations between First Nations and Settler peoples across the country. Freedom Road is not in itself mutuality; it only makes mutuality possible. It is not in itself reconciliation; it is a road to reconciliation. There is still so much repair to be done. But this is not an insignificant step.
Once again, today is a rest day. It is good to rest, especially given the work in front of us. But it will be good work… and I’m happy to offer a tune to whistle while doing so:
Walking on the diversion dike
Daryl Redsky beside diversion canal