by Samantha Klassen (Students for Freedom Road Leader)
Originally published in Doxa Volume 17 Issue 3 November 2015
** all photos by JamesChristianImagery
It is a remarkable thing to find yourself in a watershed moment, realizing the gravity of what is transpiring around you, acutely aware that things will never be the same. I found myself in the middle of one such moment of gravity on Friday, October 30, in a sharing circle in the community hall on the Shoal Lake 40 reserve. With me were a handful of SL40 community members, around twenty Winnipeggers from various community organizations, and six or seven city councillors who had come with the purpose of touring the Museum of Canadian Human Rights Violations and seeing for themselves just where Winnipeg’s fresh water comes from.
For most, this was not the first introduction to Shoal Lake 40. Winnipeggers have known about the boil-water advisory for decades and the people of SL40 have made their need for an all-weather road to connect them to the mainland and the Trans-Canada Highway known. Marches have been held in the streets of Winnipeg, a sacred fire was kept outside the Canadian Museum of Human Rights at its opening, and their story has been told and retold in Winnipeg newspapers. Yet their island isolation has persisted, their expensive reliance on bottled water has not yet been alleviated, and they risk death by drowning simply to cross to the mainland for groceries.
In the past year their fight has finally begun to pick up momentum among community groups in Winnipeg. Less than two months ago, Students for Freedom Road was launched and joined the effort to bring this issue to the forefront of the public’s attention. I have had the privilege of being in the thick of this growing movement, watching it evolve and gain traction. It has been thrilling to see the community come together to do this work: dozens of students collecting petition signatures, churches across Manitoba publicly declaring their support for Freedom Road, and community advocacy groups meeting with city councillors to urge them in the right direction. It all culminated on October 30, when Winnipeg city councillors finally converged on the soil of Shoal Lake 40 itself and became witnesses.
Let me back up to mid-September, when Students for Freedom Road connected with the Friends of SL40, a network of community groups advocating in various ways for the same cause. In the summer the focus had been largely directed to the federal government, but with the federal election pending, it seemed best to shift our focus to the city of Winnipeg. As it turned out, after the election the tables turned 180° as the resistant MP of Kenora, ON was replaced, and the Trudeau government expressed full-fledged support for Freedom Road. The goal was to ensure that Freedom Road would be written into the budget which was, and is, currently being formalized. We decided the best approach would be to take a delegation to Shoal Lake and began to invite councillors.
As some of the Friends of SL40 started to meet with various councillors, it became evident that we didn’t need to think of these politicians as antagonists – in fact, to do so would be to shoot ourselves in the foot. Instead, we needed to support them, enabling them to do the right thing in the face of much opposition. My impression is that activism work is often framed as standing up against the forces of evil, where “evil” is frequently equated with “government.” I don’t deny that sometimes this is true and such confrontation is needed. But, what I learned in this experience was that giving the politicians the benefit of the doubt allowed us to come alongside them and invite them to “come and see.”
And come they did. Packed like sardines into fifteen-passenger vans (because the barge cannot accommodate anything much larger), these seven city councillors and others embarked on the two hour road trip to Shoal Lake and the short barge-ride to the island. Upon arrival we had a meal together, witnessed the presentations of various thank-you gifts from Winnipeg community groups, and then piled into vehicles once again to tour the reserve.
Something that I have noticed about our culture is that sometimes we think we are “participating” in something important because we read the article, watch the video, and re-tweet it. But as we went through the tour it became increasingly clear to me that nothing – not photographs, HD video, or newspaper coverage – can replace being present with people, being present to a place. The city councillors knew about SL40 and about the injustice, but as Stewart Redsky emphasized, this was “seeing and feeling” learning. This was empathy in practice. You could read about the issue all you wanted, and care or not, but once you have shared space with the people of SL40, seen their living conditions, and felt their grief, what you read no longer matters. All that matters is getting the work done so that the injustice can be ended.
Following the tour we came back to the community hall to take part in a sharing circle. Each person had a chance to reflect, and together we received each other’s words.
All of the councillors spoke. Some were troubled, not having fully grasped before the gravity of the injustice. Others were expressly supportive of the Freedom Road project, having had their inclination toward support confirmed by what they had witnessed. Every councillor expressed gratitude for the hospitality of the SL40 people and the opportunity which they had been given to deepen their understanding of SL40’s story. I left with a powerful sense of hope, knowing that the day had been deeply meaningful to everyone in the room.
As I considered the day, it seemed that a good word to describe the people of Shoal Lake 40 is “resilient”. Yes, there is weariness. Yes, there is grief. Yes, there is evidence of the decades-long burden of injustice. However, I sensed an undercurrent of vitality that was stronger than any of these things. In the land and in the people there was a shimmering beauty, ready to burst forth if only the weight of injustice would be stripped away.
Another word echoes in my mind from that day, and that is “graciousness”. The graciousness that was shown to each visitor by the people of Shoal Lake was almost unfathomable. How can a people who have endured so much devastation at the hands of the city of Winnipeg then turn to members of that same city with hospitality, generosity, and a desire to renew the relationship and turn the page? Yet that is the kind of grace by which the people of Shoal Lake extended their hands to us, their visitors. No trace of bitterness or anger was to be found. This is an experience that I will carry with me for many years to come. I hope that someday the rest of Canada can learn to be as gracious as the people of Shoal Lake have been.
On October 31, the day after the delegation, Steve Bell received a call from Mayor Brian Bowman. He had heard nothing but heartfelt, positive reports from council members who had made the journey. Then the mayor said what we had all been waiting to hear: “there may be problems with the budget… but Freedom Road won’t be one of them. We all want to get this done.” He confirmed that funds to begin construction of Freedom Road are represented for budget consideration, and he expects full and glad support from council members.**
Freedom is coming! Freedom Road will finally be built and the people of Shoal Lake 40 will at last have the chance to thrive in their own home. Let this be a witness to us all of the power of goodness to overcome evil, and the redemptive power of grace.
*For a detailed explanation of the situation, read this article: http://thetyee.ca/News/2015/06/24/Peoples-Road-to-Freedom/