In 1919, an aqueduct to carry clean lake water directly to Winnipeg was completed. It was built on prime lands (including burial grounds) appropriated from the Ojibwa village traditionally called Kekekoziibii (Hawk River)—otherwise known as Shoal Lake 40—who have inhabited the mouth of the river since time immemorial.
In order to accomplish the aqueduct, the people of Kekekoziibii were displaced onto a joining peninsula, and then cut off from the mainland by a man-made canal used to divert murky waters away from the aqueduct’s intake. The canal effectively created an island of the peninsula and the community has been isolated since.
The people at Shoal Lake were always a self-sufficient community supporting themselves through commercial fishing, and the managed harvesting of naturally occurring wild rice. Fish migration and spawning patterns were affected and access to productive wild rice areas was compromised by the intake works, rail line, dike and diversion canal. Despite the artificial isolation, the community managed to maintain their full economic self-sufficiency on commercial fishery until the early 1980’s when Ontario shut down commercial fishing on Shoal Lake.
In an effort to replace this traditional economic base the First Nation dedicated a portion of their lands, created their own community development corporation, and applied to Indian Affairs to transfer control of the land to their corporation for the purposes of leased cottage development. The plan was to replicate highly successful tourism-based economy in the immediate area (Falcon Lake, Whiteshell, Clearwater Bay, etc.). Attempts to replace lost revenues by developing cottage properties and tourism was and continues to be blocked by the city of Winnipeg, and what was once a viable community has now become a place of tremendous suffering and need.
As a result of a cascade of restrictions and imposed limitations affecting daily life and essential services, the reserve is now in an almost uninhabitable state. There is no gravel for their roads, septic fields or house foundations. They are without acceptable water treatment systems to make the water surrounding their homes safe and potable. Currently the community spends roughly $140,000 a year on bottled water. Despite two completed water plant designs the community remains on an 18 year boil water advisory because the cost of construction on an island is deemed prohibitively expensive without a road.
Members cannot maintain jobs off-reserve without actually moving off the reserve. High school students have to board in nearby Kenora because daily back and forth to their homes is untenable. Health and safety is compromised especially in spring and fall when the barge cannot run and the ice is thin (9 have lost their lives in recent memory trying to cross the channel under unpredictable ice and water conditions).
Apart from a “token payment” for the land “granted” to the City of Winnipeg’s utility*, there has never been a penny of royalty or compensation given to Shoal Lake 40 in exchange for their losses that have allowed for the flourishing of the City of Winnipeg.
Recently, feasibility studies, conducted in close cooperation with the City of Winnipeg and the Province of Manitoba, have been completed, concluding that the most feasible solution is to create a secure all-weather road and bridge to the west. A short bridge would cross the 100-year-old diversion canal and cross unobstructed Manitoba Crown land and connect to the Trans Canada highway about 18 kms from the reserve (a total of 27 km from the community centre). Funded by three levels of government, it would end a century of isolation creating a pathway to essential services, economic development and the development of a water treatment plant for the community.
The city of Winnipeg has vetted the plan and committed to one third of the cost. The Province of Manitoba has vetted the plan and committed to one third of the cost. But, despite one third of the road being on the reserve (land under federal responsibility), the Government of Canada, which carries fiduciary obligations for the health and well-being of the community, has refused to commit to its share.
Now, citizen groups are forming and organizing to insist our Federal Government step up to the plate and commit to ending this travesty. We are motivated not by partisan sensibilities, but rather by a fundamental belief in the dignity of all, and a desire to live in a fair and just society.
Request to the Government of Canada
What we are asking of our Federal Government is for the same level of good faith and commitment that has been shown by the City of Winnipeg and the Province of Manitoba, which is a commitment, in principle, to the completion of Freedom Road.
Let’s get this done. Simply put, it’s the right thing to do.
*It is my understanding that the amount of money paid to Shoal Lake 40 in 1915 was $2,500 which immediately saved the city of Winnipeg the $600,000 they would have had to spend on a treatment plant to make Winnipeg’s river waters drinkable. I’m currently waiting for confirmation on the exact amounts and the date.