Here’s the story as I heard it…
At the height of the AIDS crisis over a decade ago, Bono met with George W. Bush asking him to commit a rather large amount of money to help in the fight against AIDS in Africa. Apparently President Bush was sincerely empathetic and agreed that the U.S. should do something significant, but informed Bono that he couldn’t just unilaterally write a cheque. He suggested, however, that if Bono would go out and create a demonstration of public support for such a move, President Bush then could, and would, respond to the public demonstration.
Shortly afterward, Christian music producer Charlie Peacock received a call from Bono asking him to gather the top, most influential Christian musicians in his living room for a meeting. A week or so later, several somewhat startled and disbelieving artists met at Charlie Peacock’s home in Nashville, and sure enough, Bono showed up, sang them a couple of songs, then explained the situation and asked them to mobilize their fan bases in support of the U.S. getting behind the AIDS crisis. Bono then took time with individual musicians to help strategize how they could best mobilize their fan bases.
The short story is that the musicians did just that, and created such a public outcry that when the next budget came out, President Bush committed significantly more money to the fight than Bono had asked for in the first place.
So here’s what I learned from this story:
1. Politicians often want to do what’s right, but given limitations of budgets and competing claims for those funds, they really do need the public to speak out—not acrimoniously, but simply to indicate the values they hope will guide prioritization.
2. Rather than stand on the edges and yell condemnations at politicians who we often assume are callous at best, and criminal at worst… it can be far better to meet in person, listen to and appreciate their very real struggles and limitations, and offer support so that the best decisions can be made and implemented.
And here’s why I’m telling you all this:
Last week, Kyle Mason (Executive Director of the North End Family Center, Wpg), Ren Martens (Managing Partner of GHY International; Corporate Director, National and Regional Boards) and myself met with several Winnipeg City Councillors to talk about Shoal Lake 40 Freedom Road.
If you don’t know the story, Shoal Lake is where Winnipeg gets its water from. A hundred years ago, we displaced the community of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation (Kekekoziibii) from their prime land to make way for the aqueduct that has watered Winnipeg since (some 50 million gallons a day). The community was forcibly removed to a nearby peninsula that was soon artificially turned into an island as a result of the aqueduct and canal necessary for its construction. Shoal Lake 40 First Nation has been effectively marrooned since, and the sorrows and suffering as a result of their imposed isolation are well documented. More recently, the unintended consequence of the extraction, in concert with other factors of modernity, has polluted the lake rendering its waters undrinkable. Winnipeg responded by building a water treatment plant for its own citizens, but Shoal Lake 40 First Nation has been on a boil-water advisory for 18 years.
Ironically, three levels of government (federal, provincial and civic) recently contributed enormous funds to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in downtown Winnipeg, whose taps and toilets run with Shoal Lake water. Given that 9 people have died in recent memory at the very source of that water—forced to attempt crossing the channel when the ice was unsafe—it can be fairly said that the serene contemplation pool at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights flows with the blood and tears of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation.
To begin to redress the situation, it has been proposed that the Government of Canada, the Province of Manitoba, and the City of Winnipeg share equally in the costs of a bridge and a road that will link Shoal Lake 40 to the Trans Canada Highway (Canada’s main economic corridor) only 17 miles away. The road would end the community’s isolation and make a water treatment plant for their own use possible. Up until recently the Province and the City have registered support for this co-operative redress, but the Federal Government has refused to commit. However, the recent election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has changed the dynamic. What is now evident (from public events and private conversations with Federal MPs) is that there is soon likely to be an announcement of Federal support and available funds when the detailed road design is completed in January. The Province of Manitoba is also preparing to have funds available so construction can begin upon completion of the road’s design.
What is now becoming evident however… and this is the whole point of this blog… is that the City of Winnipeg has been caught off-guard by the sudden turn and is not prepared to have funds available, even though Mayor Bowman wrote a strong letter last April to the now deposed Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Bernard Valcourt suggesting it was the Federal Government that was the obstacle to moving forward. Now, it seems, it is the City of Winnipeg which will soon be derided internationally for unpreparedness and inaction as this particular issue is being presented by Human Rights Watch at the U.N. in Geneva in February.
Our meeting with City Councillors last week was very positive, set up by Councillor Gillingham who has been a listening ear and advocate to bring this issue forward along with Councillor Gilroy. I was initially struck by how little some knew about the historic details of the situation, of the current sufferings of the people of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, and of the current status of the road design in which the City of Winnipeg has been a participating partner from its inception. There’s been so much recent press on this that it’s hard to believe anyone doesn’t know what I thought we all knew. But, to be fair, our civic leaders are juggling a thousand balls at once, while I, on the other hand, have had the luxury of focused attention and engagement on this one issue for the last several months. So it has become very clear to me how important face-to-face citizen engagement with leaders really is. None were unsympathetic… just a little fuzzy about some of the details, and not sure how to accelerate their process to match the current Provincial and Federal energy behind this. We invited the councillors out to Shoal Lake to see for themselves and engage with the community there, and happily, a good number will be travelling with us this Friday (Oct. 30) to do just that.
Significantly, at one point in the meeting, when it became evident that councillors were going to have to get fairly creative to be ready with practical commitment in January, Kyle Mason simply asked what we could do to help them. What came back was that it would really be helpful if we could demonstrate strong public support. They asked us to mobilize the public to email, phone, sign petitions, etc. When Kyle asked at what point public display is more annoying than helpful they all agreed there was no such line.
And so, here’s how YOU can help…
1. We (Friends of Shoal Lake 40*) have created an on-line petition and are asking everyone simply to sign it—not just Winnipeggers, but concerned Canadian citizens from sea to sea to sea. This is a matter of local, regional and national integrity and justice with symbolic potential to begin a sea-change in relations between First Nations and Canadian Settler peoples.
It’s time to move beyond commitment “in principal” to commitment “in deed.”
Simply put, it’s the right thing to do.
To sign the petition, go to www.buildfreedomroad.com
(www.buildfreedomroad.ca works as well)
Share this URL (www.buildfreedomroad.com or .ca) to your social networks. You may use the Facebook banner and meme below if either are helpful. This week is critical leading up to the councillors’ trip to Shoal Lake. Each time the petition is signed, an email goes to each councillor’s inbox, and the mayor’s as well.
2. Please share this blog using the social media buttons above.
We are hoping for at least 10,000 supporters. Would you help us?
For further reading see:
A Road To Set Us All Free (Wpg. Free Press, Sept 12/15) —David Angus (CEO, Manitoba Chamber of Commerce)
Facebook Banner – click image to enlarge, right click on enlarged image to save to your desktop, upload to FB banner
Shareable meme – click image to enlarge, right-click on image to save to desktop, share to FB, Twitter and the like:
*There have been many groups forming in support of Shoal Lake 40 Freedom Road. “Friends of Shoal Lake 40” is a loose coalition of several support groups including Honour the Source, Students For Freedom Road, 10 Days for Shoal Lake 40, Churches for Freedom Road, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba, The Museum of Canadian Human Rights Violations, Council of Canadians Winnipeg Chapter, Decolonizing Network, Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition, The Price of Water, as well as various business leaders and corporate representatives.