(Saturday, Oct 31, 2015)
Today I’m feeling about as serene as this photo I took yesterday out at Shoal Lake… because today is a rest day after a fruitful week.
Last week, close to 4000 mostly Winnipeggers signed a petition supporting public funds for the construction of Freedom Road—a 17 mile provincial grade road linking Shoal Lake 40 First Nation to the Trans Canada Highway, which will redress their century-long imposed isolation and make possible a water treatment plant to end a boil-water advisory they’ve lived under for 18 years.
Yesterday, seven city councillors, plus support staff, business leaders, and representatives from the various civil groups that have arisen in support of Freedom Road, met at a church parking lot on the outskirts of Winnipeg at 8:30 in the morning, and crammed into three vans to travel together to Shoal Lake 40. The purpose was to meet with the community there, to engage with people and their story, and to better understand how the aqueduct that supplies Winnipeg with its drinking water has been so devastating to the community that has lived on that land since time immemorial.
It was a surprisingly upbeat trip. The councillors were all high spirited, in part because the day before, Mayor Bowman had issued both public and private statements in essence giving his blessing to the trip and reaffirming his commitment to redress a century-long wrong in order to begin a new era of mutuality with our friends and neighbours at Shoal Lake 40—a community which, by the way, has a name, not just a number: Kekekoziibii (Hawk River).
It was rather unbelievable to witness the grace and hospitality in which we, representatives of a city that has caused Shoal Lake 40 First Nation so much hardship and heartache, were received. I do hope the story is someday told of the almost Ghandian quality by which the leaders of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation have conducted themselves. There have been no civil disruptions; there has been no violence. There has only been a multi-decade, steadfast determination to not be annihilated, and to build sincere friendships and allies in their fight and right to survive. I do think civic honours are in order. Their determination to stay the high road has been remarkable, and exemplary for the rest of the country.
The day itself was somewhat arduous: two hours there and back packed like sardines in vans; delays on and off the reserve because of wait-times for the decrepit ferry to transport vehicles to and from the mainland; and terrible road conditions on the reserve itself, as they have no way to access gravel for maintenance (and it has been raining for the last week).
It was difficult to listen to some of the community members’ personal stories. At one point, while a school teacher was telling us of the struggles of running a school with limited access to the mainland, someone from the community called out “tell us about your brother who died crossing the ice!” There was a moment of silence as she fought to keep composure, and then, with quivering lip, responded with the question, “Which one?”
Chief Redsky led us to the site of the aqueduct, canal and water diversion dike that supplies Winnipeg’s drinking water some 70 miles away. As we stood on the dike he informed us that the earth used to create it was excavated in part from their traditional burial grounds; we were indeed standing on the remains of his ancestors. We saw evidence of how that dike diverts polluted water (flowing in from the densely populated Falcon Lake) away from the aqueduct’s intake and redirects it toward their own community.
At another point, as Chief Redsky was speaking, Stewart Redsky pulled me aside and asked if I would please relay this message back home: “We take no pleasure in embarrassing, shaming or discrediting anyone. That is not who we are. But a wrong has been done that needs to be owned and redressed. We are your neighbours, and we are your friends.” A similar grace is evident in Chief Redsky who, last spring, when asked how he felt about the citizens of Winnipeg having to undergo a brief boil-water advisory, replied, “We don’t wish this on anyone, not even for a day.”
The city councillors didn’t get home until after 6 pm. As far as I could tell, everyone stayed fully engaged throughout. We were all deeply impacted.
Today I was surprised to receive a call from Mayor Bowman. He told me that already he has heard nothing but heartfelt, positive reports from councillors on the previous day’s journey. He wanted me to thank all those who have worked so hard to keep this issue in the public eye. He reaffirmed, in no uncertain terms, the commitment he made last spring to the building of Freedom Road and assured me that he has already been on the phone to Ottawa to keep this issue on their front burner. The Mayor then instructed me that even though it is generally considered inadvisable to announce line-items in a budget proposal before it is passed, that in this case he was happy to confirm that funds to begin construction of Freedom Road are indeed represented for budget consideration, and that he expects full and glad support from council members. Finally, with a slight chuckle he added, “there may well be problems with the budget… but Freedom Road won’t be one of them. We all want to get this done.”
I think it’s fairly safe to say that we are well on our way to a new and mutually flourishing relationship with our good neighbours at Shoal Lake 40 First Nation. I’m praying that this can be a symbol and model of a sea change in relations between First Nations and Settler peoples across the country. Freedom Road is not in itself mutuality; it only makes mutuality possible. It is not in itself reconciliation; it is a road to reconciliation. There is still so much repair to be done. But this is not an insignificant step.
Once again, today is a rest day. It is good to rest, especially given the work in front of us. But it will be good work… and I’m happy to leave you with a tune to whistle while doing so:
Walking on the diversion dike
Daryl Redsky beside diversion canal