Justice in Principle…Freedom In Deed — Steve Bell, August 11, 2015 (WPG)
Several weeks ago, I found myself an interviewee-in-waiting at CBC’s complex on Portage Avenue, situated in sunny downtown Winnipeg. Talk-show host Ismaila Alfa requested an interview, having noticed I had publicly backed a petition to the Federal Government asking for a firm commitment to the building of Freedom Road, a 27 kilometer provincial-grade road that would end a century of artificially imposed isolation for the people of Kekekoziibii (Hawk River) —otherwise known as Shoal Lake 40 First Nation.
For reasons that baffle careful observers, the Federal Government is reticent to commit fully to an equal partnership with a willing City of Winnipeg and a willing Province of Manitoba to build the road. Greg Rickford, Minister of Natural Resources and MP for the Kenora riding, was assigned as “point man” in 2010 on the cooperative Shoal Lake road access program. Five years later, during which time the aging systems for removing garbage and treating sewage in the community have collapsed, Mr. Rickford still reasons that he should await a final budget before committing to fix the 100 year old cause of the problem—even though it is common knowledge that provincial-grade road-building on similar terrain costs roughly a million dollars per kilometer.
Mr. Rickford assures detractors that the one million dollars the federal government has previously committed to a design study should show good faith enough. However, to the people of Shoal Lake 40, “design only” sends quite a different message. They have already suffered two federally funded (and subsequently abandoned) studies for a water treatment facility, and are now heading into their 18th year under a boil-water advisory. They are feeling far from assured.
When it was time for my interview, Ismaila came to the area room to fetch me into the studio. As I was rising from my chair he suddenly smiled and pointed through the window to the church across the street. There, posted in large red letters on Elim Chapel’s street sign, were the bold words “We support Shoal Lake 40 Freedom Road.” It was all I could do to keep from tears, and I interviewed as a proud Christian.
Later that day I phoned my sister, Dorothy Fontaine, who serves as Director of Mission for Mennonite Church Manitoba. I was curious if she knew of any church groups organizing to support Shoal Lake 40. She informed me of a group gathering that evening and invited me to attend. ChurchesForFreedomRoad.ca was formed that night, and within a week a website and public awareness campaign were launched. In only a few weeks, over 50 churches (across several denominations, cities and provinces) have posted pictures of their street signs supporting Freedom Road, making a public statement that this is a Christian concern.
New photos come in almost daily as education and awareness grows. For now, the photos and various church-leader commendations are collected on the website, but will eventually be gathered onto one poster and sent to every Member of Parliament.
It came somewhat as a surprise when outgoing Conservative MP Joy Smith phoned me. “Bless you all for caring for God’s beloved!” she said before asking if I would join her on a trip to Shoal Lake 40 to meet with Chief Erwin Redsky and experience the community and the situation first hand.
I’ve written elsewhere what we learned on our detailed tour (see stevebell.com), but suffice it to say that I left with any and all niggling reservations about the rightness of the cause removed.
In the midst of that information-rich visit, Ms. Smith, from whom I’ve otherwise heard sincere words of solidarity and respect for her party and its leader, lamented, “I don’t understand this…this is beneath us. This road has to get done. It’s simply the right thing to do.”
Returning home, Ms. Smith called a press conference to announce her unreserved support for Freedom Road. Greg Rickford was informed days in advance and invited to attend to make a commitment, but he didn’t show. Instead, he waited until moments after the conference to email a brief statement:
“We support the construction of the Freedom Road in principle. That is why we are funding the design of the Freedom Road.”
Well… it’s something I suppose. It’s ambiguous, but perhaps slightly less so than in the day before. A victory? Certainly not. The Winnipeg Free Press was less kind, calling Rickford’s 22 word response “bloodless… finely tuned…doublespeak and obfuscation.”
I choose to be more hopeful. Mr. Rickford knows that the entreated commitment has an informed, projected price tag and an urgent start date that other levels of government have already agreed to in order to not lose a critical winter building season.
While reflecting on all that has transpired up to now, I came across a quote from Augustine:
“Remove justice…and what are kingdoms but large gangs of robbers.”
I’m not, by any means, accusing Mr. Rickford of thuggery. But unquestionably, over the sad century of Canada’s relationship with Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, thuggery has been afoot… and indifference has allowed it to continue.
I so wish Mr. Rickford’s statement had been different. I so wish he had announced, rather, a commitment to justice “in principle” and to a road…in deed.
Perhaps he yet will.
ChurchesForFreedomRoad.ca will remain vigorously active until funds for Freedom Road are fully committed and construction has begun.
Photos below from our visit to Shoal Lake 40 First Nation include Joy Smith, Chief Erwin Redsky, Stewart Redsky, Amy Knight