Q: Why is this initiative so important, especially post-Truth and Reconciliation report?
A: Canadians have spent the last few years hearing and absorbing the painful truth of First Nations/settler relations over the past several hundred years, but the hard road of reconciliation still lies ahead. Recovery of the true kinship—from which derives the word “kind”—that was understood at the onset of this relationship will take a lot of time and some very clear gestures of reparation. This particular instance is deeply symbolic in that it involves a road and a bridge: a road to reconciliation and a bridge over troubled waters. These two metaphors are rich with symbolic potential, but the symbols have to be incarnated to have integrity and usefulness.
Q: Why should Christians in Canada care about this?
A: Our concern for the situation of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation and their struggle for justice runs far deeper than reasonable compassion for a community that has suffered for a century under the callous crush of settler society. Our concern is equally for the wider society who, in pursuit of progress (defined mostly in economic terms), has not only dehumanized and alienated Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, but in doing so has dehumanized themselves and, to some degree, alienated themselves from God. If we look through the lens of biblical covenant, we will see that in this particular situation what some might call an outrage or a disgrace, the scriptures call sin. Simply put, Christians should care about sin.
Q: Why should the Federal Government provide funding, and not just the City and Province, given that the City of Winnipeg has arguably benefited the most from the misery of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, and 50% of the population of Manitoba drinks from Shoal Lake?
A: First, one third of the road is located on the Shoal Lake 40 reserve, entirely within Canada’s responsibility. If that were not enough rationale, all of Canada has benefited from the flourishing of the City of Winnipeg (a significant Federal tax base no less), so even though this situation has a regional character it is not only of regional concern. In addition, it is the Federal Government’s fiduciary responsibility to act for the welfare of First Nations people. The Federal Government failed to do this when the land was appropriated and the aqueduct built 100 years ago, and for the Federal Government to now drag its heels, amidst participation from other levels of government, is a refusal to accept responsibility for earlier failings. As much as a very real road, and a very real bridge is truly needed, what is needed even more is for the Canadian government to recognize the humanity of all its citizens, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and affirm that our sacred treaty agreements matter to us all. Building Freedom Road could serve as a very real acknowledgment by the Canadian government that it, too, wishes to walk on this road to reconciliation.
Q: The June 25th announcement indicates the Federal Government has committed $1M out of $3M total for the engineering study but wants to see the outcome of the study before committing to the project and cost. The engineering study has to be completed before any work can start. Why is there an issue with this approach?
A: It is true that after several years of joint requests, the Federal Government finally agreed to cost share 1/3 of the cost of a design with Manitoba and Winnipeg. This design study was committed to earlier in the year with all three levels of government agreeing to split the cost and was understood to trigger actual construction.
On April 14th, the Mayor of Winnipeg and Minister Kevin Chief of Manitoba wrote to Canada’s Minister of Aboriginal Affairs requesting that the federal government commit in principle to proceeding to construct Freedom Road immediately on completion of the design. On June 25th, at Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, there was a gathering of representatives from all levels of government. The Province of Manitoba publicly announced that once the design study was completed, they would fund 1/3 the cost of the road (at this point estimated to be a $30 million project). The City of Winnipeg agreed to the same and gave proof to that promise by officially launching the construction of a $4 million permanent bridge across their diversion canal. But the Federal Government did not agree to pitch in their share of the cost. So this means that even after the design study is done, there is no solid guarantee that the road will be built. For those who have been fighting this cause for decades, it was a hard blow, and the open weeping of the residents was evidence of their dashed hopes.
In 2011, when the proposal for a new water treatment plant showed that the cost would be more than anticipated, the Federal Government refused to contribute the difference and the plan was abandoned. Twice the Federal Government has cancelled the funding for water treatment systems because of the unpredictability of access and cost of construction in an ‘isolated’ community. As such, there is a precedent for the Federal Government funding design and then abandoning their fiduciary responsibility to Shoal Lake 40 First Nation. As a tearful First Nation member, Stewart Redsky, exclaimed at the June 25th event in Shoal Lake 40, “We are studied to death. We are designed to death…We need to hear more than a commitment to design.”
In light of the recent Truth and Reconciliation report, the building of a road to allow Shoal Lake 40 reasonable access to the economic means of exchange and to their basic human right of clean water, seems a clear and logical step for the Federal Government to show their good faith. Since this is an election year, we feel this is a particularly good time for the government to be challenged on this issue by the broader public.
I hope this helps explain a bit about why we feel the urgency of this issue. Even if we must still wait for the results of the design, our representatives need to commit to fixing what is so clearly an unacceptable situation. We also want to show our solidarity with the people of Shoal Lake to encourage them in their long battle. Already they have told us their community feels renewed hope because of the support from various grassroots movements throughout Winnipeg, the province, Canada and, to a growing degree, the world.
Q: At what point do we consider a particular civil right to be cost-prohibitive? Why would the members of Shoal Lake 40 not just move to a new location?
A: Shoal Lake 40 was a self-sufficient and economically viable community. They were displaced from their traditional location and ‘best land’ without consultation, to make way for the City of Winnipeg’s water diversion project. The people still managed to thrive for most of a century on traditional pursuits of wild rice production, commercial fishing, tourism and some mining and mineral exploration. They continue to love their home. It is the wellspring of their history, their language and their sense of belonging. They should not have to re-locate because of economic restrictions that have been artificially imposed on them by the self-interest of a large settler community.
Were this a non-aboriginal community, Shoal Lake 40 would have had a road many years ago. The community is located within Canada’s main economic corridor along the TransCanada highway. Located on water and in proximity to a large urban market, it has the same or better economic prospects as Falcon Lake, Clearwater Bay, Kenora and Sioux Narrows and other communities in the vicinity. Normal economic development in SL 40 and vicinity has been actively suppressed.
Anyone interested in fully informing him or herself on the subject of the sustainability of Shoal Lake 40 is encouraged to visit the community and take the information tour.
On the subject of relocation, one might also ask why many millions of Canadian tax dollars perennially go to bail out a community (namely, Winnipeg / Southern Manitoba) whose people unwisely insist on living in a floodplain.
The $10 million price tag for the Federal Government is actually a very small number, especially since the road construction will be spread out over 5 years, making the yearly budget line only $2 million/year. Keep in mind that to date, the Government of Canada has allocated $100 million toward the cost of building the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and another $35 has been requested in capital funding to cover shortfalls. The annual operating budget of the Canada’s Museum for Human Rights is in excess of $20 million (Wikipedia, last modified August 4, 2015).
Q: Most folks who have cottages in the Shoal Lake area have individual water treatment systems in their homes that cost roughly $400 per household. Why do the residents of SL40 not have something similar, rather than bringing in water at high costs to the community?
A: The water and wastewater systems on SL40 are collectively owned by the entire First Nation—as they are in most First Nation communities and municipalities. There are tough regulations and severe liability issues that apply to communal water treatment systems. These standards do not apply to private water systems. The level of health protection a cottage-owner might provide to his or her own family is determined by the diligence and the budget of the person responsible. In a communal system, the responsible, liable party—which is the government of the First Nation or the municipality—is literally “cooking for the whole community.”
Water treatment systems that provide adequate health protection for all the water used in the home, to the standard required by law, are most cheaply and consistently provided by centralizing the treatment. If individual treatment were cheaper and better, the budget-minded governments of Winnipeg and other jurisdictions would be recommending it to their water consumers.
Q: Why doesn’t SL40 simply connect to the existing road that comes in from the highway for band 39? Wouldn’t that be a lot simpler?
A: It’s important for anyone new to the issue to appreciate that Freedom Road is the outcome of many many years of investigation, deliberation and research by a large, diverse group of very qualified technical and political people representing the many governments having jurisdiction in the issue. By far, the greatest amount of careful and creative consideration of the problem has been undertaken by the people of Shoal Lake 40 whose very survival turns on the resolution of the access question. You can be assured that they have thought of every possible way of getting secure access to their homes.
While there are other complexities, secure access through Iskatewizaagegan #39 Independent First Nation is not possible because establishing a “right of way” would require that community to “surrender” (an Indian Act term) their own right to that portion of their land. Knowing the negative consequences of Winnipeg’s imposed “right of way” across Shoal Lake 40 reserve it should come as no surprise that a “right of way” is a non-starter.
It’s worth noting that over the years a Mayor of Winnipeg and former Minister of Indian Affairs personally attempted to explore this option and concluded that the western access was the only feasible option.
Q: This campaign smacks of partisanship. Doesn’t it give an anti-Conservative impression to outside observers?
A: This campaign is non-partisan. Regardless of who holds the federal seats of power, we will continue reminding the government of its fiduciary responsibility to Shoal Lake 40 First Nation. The demands for access and fulfilling this responsibility existed long before the Conservative Party formed a majority government—and we anticipate will continue to be an issue we need to push regardless of the government in power.
Freedom Road is a human rights issue not an election issue. It is about access to essential services and economic opportunity. However, since it is election time and candidates of all stripes are trying to make a positive impression on the electorate, we believe it is timely to amplify demand for action that is long overdue. As such, we will be seeking responses from all federal candidates in Manitoba and Kenora ridings and make this information available to the public on our website.
Shoal Lake 40 First Nation has been under a boil water advisory for over 18 years, and has been advocating for Freedom Road for at least the past 8 years. It is only because of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation’s relentless efforts in educating the public and campaigning for Freedom Road over the past several years that Winnipeggers, such as Churches For Freedom Road, are demanding action now.