The following dialogue was recently published in a special edition of Intotemak, “Yours, Mine, Ours: Unravelling the Doctrine of Discovery.”
ANGELINA MCLEOD is Anishinaabe kwe from Shoal Lake 40 First Nation in Treaty 3. Ange is a Water and Land Defender.
CHUCK WRIGHT is a white settler living in Treaty 1 territory, Winnipeg, Manitoba. He is a full-time member of the Indigenous Peoples Solidarity team of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT).
Upon invitation to contribute to this issue, Ange and Chuck got together for coffee to discuss the relevance of the Doctrine of Discovery to the experience of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, and what it might mean for Winnipeggers and churches today. Winnipeg receives its drinking water from Shoal Lake through a 135-kilometre aqueduct, and an historic dispossession that remains unresolved to this day. Here are some snippets from this conversation:
ANGE: In 1914, the Greater Winnipeg Water District began construction of the aqueduct without prior consultation or consent from the people of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation. Settlers assumed the land was given to them by God, and that they had the right to build the aqueduct on Anishinaabe lands and to use Shoal Lake water. At the time, they believed the land was largely uninhabited, “with the exception” according to the surveyors report, “of a few Indians.” The government decided to forcefully isolate my community onto a man-made island in order to obtain their water source. Today, we are still isolated. We have to rely on a ferry in the summer and an ice road in the winter. Many community members risk their lives just to get the basic necessities to live, such as groceries, medical appointments, education, and most importantly, clean drinking water. Winnipeg Water Supply actually makes a profit off the water it extracts from Shoal Lake and sells to the city, while the other end of the pipe has been isolated by that same aqueduct. We’ve been living under a boil water advisory for 19 years and counting, as well as experiencing little economic opportunity and inadequate housing.
CHUCK: As I enjoy clean drinking water every day in Winnipeg, it really brings this historical injustice home to me – quite literally. This direct relationship to Shoal Lake has serious implications for all Winnipeggers and churches, who not only enjoy reliable water from their household taps, but utilize this same resource in their sacraments, such as baptism. In my mind, “repudiating” the Doctrine of Discovery, must involve much more than words and proclamations. It’s an archaic ideology living through our existing, colonial relationships here on Turtle Island. Our city is currently celebrating a “year of reconciliation” in response to being proclaimed the most racist city in Canada (MacLeans magazine, January 2015). It seems to me we are challenged to take some concrete actions, such as supporting investment in the all-weather Freedom Road to Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, whose dispossession and isolation from essential services is a direct outcome of our drinking water infrastructure.
ANGE: Personally, “repudiating” the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius doesn’t mean much to me, or for the relationship between Winnipeggers and the community of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, because there is no way the land where the aqueduct is can be given back to the people of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation. If we want to create a positive relationship on both ends of the pipe, it should involve Winnipeggers, especially churches, supporting the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation community as we try to get a water and sewage treatment plant so community members can have access to clean water to drink, to bathe in, and to perform ceremonies. I find it ironic how God and Christianity are supposed to be “good” when my home community does not have clean water to use in ceremonies. How are we supposed to believe God and Christianity is “good” when people of the same human race are currently suffering from lack of access to clean water? I often wonder how they can call water “holy” when it was stolen and has caused much suffering for the people of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation.
I grew up as a second generation residential school survivor. It was tough. Hearing stories from my parents about the physical, emotional, sexual, mental and cultural abuse they witnessed at the hands of those who serve God led me to believe that Christianity was something evil. As a child, I was awoken nearly every night from my mother’s terrifying screams. Nightmares haunted her because of her experience at the church-operated, residential school. To this day, I am still awoken at the same time every night. Only now, I no longer hear mom’s screams because she has moved onto the spirit world. It’s like my mind and body adapted to being woken up each night, but now I wake up with intense fear because I can’t hear her screams anymore. She is gone. She drowned when her canoe capsized as she was trying to get home.
CHUCK: Because of this history and the sense of cultural-spiritual superiority that is still present in many churches, I encounter understandable aversions among some Anishinaabe people to “building partnerships” with Christian-identified organizations (like CPT). I have heard this in our conversation, and I think it helps in understanding the trust that needs to be built. I have some hope that through initiatives like the Churches for Freedom Road campaign – who actively sought support among churches in Winnipeg for an all-weather road to Shoal Lake 40 – and the relationships of solidarity I’ve witnessed in my work, that Settler Christians can play an important role in transforming these legacies by seeking justice based on respect for each other’s culture and traditions. And, as you suggest, action might mean more to the relationships with our Indigenous neighbours than simply denouncing this history.
ANGE: This sense of superiority is widespread amongst Settlers, both Christian and otherwise. This sickness facilitates decisions that ignore or run roughshod over lands and waters occupied and used by Indigenous peoples. Shoal Lake 40 First Nation goes without clean water to benefit and better the lives of Winnipeggers. Winnipeg spends millions of dollars in ensuring Winnipeggers have clean drinking water; meanwhile Shoal Lake 40 community members are given zero dollars. Does this mean that Shoal Lake 40 community member’s lives mean nothing, if not even a nickel can be spent by the City to ensure that they do not get sick?
CHUCK: It seems to me that all of us Settlers have the responsibility of bringing balance to relationships that deny people their most basic human rights. The Church, however, has a special responsibility (along with the State), because of the historic role that it played in facilitating such inequities through the spreading of worldviews and spiritual postures that ‘justified’ dispossession.
Sometimes I see small glimmers of possibility. The Churches for Freedom Road campaign is one example of the effort of some Winnipeg churches exercising responsibility by proclaiming their support for the building of the all-weather road to Shoal Lake 40 on their signage, writing letters, and engaging congregations on this topic (churchesforfreedomroad.ca). Of course, there’s more work to do and pressure is still needed. However, while there’s a tendency of thinking churches as insular, conservative, and/or apolitical, churches can use their collective power to engage the public, support our Indigenous neighbours, and pressure governments in responding to the colonial harm committed in our name.