January 24, 2016
Affairs between Canada and its aboriginal people have been tense ever since Europe’s contact with the new world. One of the more recent issues that have come to light is that in Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, living conditions are deplorable and not up to the standards of Canada, which has been voted one of the best countries to live in for the past decade.
Shoal Lake 40 is a First Nations community located on the border of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario, fifteen kilometres from the Trans-Canada Highway. It regularly faces food and water shortages, lacks access to emergency medical care, and lacks adequate solid and liquid waste disposal. This lack of basic services is due to the past actions of the Canadian government.
In 1915, construction of an aqueduct to provide the city of Winnipeg, then Canada’s third largest city, with clean drinking water began. Part of this construction required dredging a canal, creating and island and effectively isolating Shoal Lake 40 from mainland Canada. Residents of Shoal Lake 40 have stated that this was done without the permission of locals. In 1914 the International Joint Commission, an organization that handles issues on shared bodies of water between Canada and the United States, claimed that full compensation would be given to all parties involved, though the community has claims that adequate compensation has not been received. The Shoal Lake 40 community was further tasked with monitoring the water quality in return for economic development through the efforts of the province of Manitoba and the city of Winnipeg. Today there are very few jobs available in the community and very little economic growth.
The canal has resulted in failed transportation links between the community and the outside world. Access in the winter is depended on thick ice on which large ice trucks will ship goods. Summer access is via ferry for the shipment of goods and the transportation of people across the canal. However, said ferry failed to pass a safety inspection and was decommissioned in the spring of 2015, rendering the community inaccessible, and it was deemed to be in a state of emergency by the government of Canada. During the autumn and fall the community is all but inaccessible, as the frozen canal bears ice too thin for large transport trucks but is also impassable for boats.
The El Niño effect, which Canada experiences this year, has extended the season of thin ice, delaying transportation in and out of Shoal Lake. Some have claimed that the warm winter is also in part caused by climate change, and that indigenous peoples who live in a culture rooted in nature are on the front lines of the change that is coming to the entire world which is so dependent on the movement of goods.
Shoal Lake 40 relies on the shipment of bottled water for drinking and cooking, despite being surrounded by a body of fresh water. The water is not suitable for drinking and the community has been under a boil water advisory for the last 17 years in spite of its proximity to the Winnipeg water treatment facility. This is one of the longest boil advisories in Canada’s history. Some residents state that the water is not suitable for bathing, let alone drinking. Building its own water treatment plant is far too costly, as it lacks suitable infrastructure to ship in building materials at a reasonable cost. If the community had suitable infrastructure, shipping in water would be potentially costly, but logistically simple. A strong transportation is required for the residents of Shoal Lake 40 to have a safe and healthy life.
Navigating the dangerous commute between mainland and Shoal Lake 40 is a daily occurrence for residents. The community lacks enough jobs for all to work within it, and it does not have a high school for children who continue their education after the eighth grade. During the thin ice season, residents described crawling on their hands and knees (in order to spread out their weight, reducing the risk of collapsing through the ice) for half an hour to cross the canal – many having experienced falling through the ice and having to crawl home risking severe hypothermia. Nine residents have not been so lucky, losing their lives in the process. Only recently in the later winter months have residents begun to drive snowmobiles across, though the ice is not yet stable to support all who travel this way. The lack of transportation has led to food and water shortages and residents are now forced to ration their supplies.
Shoal Lake 40 is in disarray. Access to food and water is difficult, at times impossible. Food and water are in short supply. Education and employment is at risk as residents have issues attending school or their place of employment due to the transportation barriers. Emergency medical care is only available via helicopter, reserved only for critical emergencies. Liquid and solid waste is piling up on the island, as disposal is not possible during a greater proportion of the year.
The community was further subject to insult over injury when, in 2008, the Canadian Museum of Human Rights was founded in the city of Winnipeg. For one, the museum was built on the Forks, an aboriginal heritage site, one of the richest for aboriginal artifacts. Shoal Lake’s chief Redsky said it was ironic that the museum used water as a symbol of healing, when in the same region not far away a community is suffering from unsanitary water conditions. The Shoal Lake 40 community invited outsiders to visit their own “Museum of Human Rights Violations” – a guided tour through their community, to raise awareness for what it was like for them to live their daily life. This has stirred up support for their cause, representatives from the Canadian Museum of Human Rights visited Shoal Lake 40, to see what it was like to live “at the other end of the pipe”.
First Nations leaders have since raised their voices and concerns to the national and international communities – including the UN in a plight for justice, stating the clean drinking water is a human right. Unsuitable waste disposal also poses a risk to Winnipeg as well (population 663,615), due to the proximity of Shoal Lake 40 to the aqueduct’s water intake pipe. There is a glimmer of hope in 2016, as Canada has been reconciling the wrong doings to indigenous people in the past and present.
The newly elected Liberal government has vowed to make changes, one of their electoral campaign promises stated resolving the issues in Shoal Lake specifically. Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennet stated that it is Canada’s moral obligation, and that resolving the Shoal Lake 40 issue will aid in restoring and renewing the relationships with First Nations in Canada. The solution to Shoal Lake 40’s issues is clearly an access road and bridge to the community, previously shut down by the past Conservative government (despite Manitoba’s and Winnepeg’s support for the project).
The estimated cost to build the road – dubbed “Freedom Road” – is 30 million CAD. Manitoba and Winnipeg have already pledged to pay 10 million CAD each to contribute to construction of the road. With the municipal (Winnipeg) and provincial (Manitoba) governments on board, First Nations leaders are pressuring the Federal government to take action rather than simply make political statements. The Federal Liberal government has already pledged one million dollars to undergo a design study for a project with resilience to climate change and to mitigate the environmental costs associated with building roads in the sensitive muskeg ecosystem in the Shoal Lake region. Freedom Road is projected to be built by the end of 2016. This road will alleviate many issues. Easier and safer transportation for those attending school or work outside of the community will give residents peace of mind knowing that they can arrive home to their families safely every night.