A boat rumbles toward us on a cool, sunny October afternoon. Standing on the shores of Shoal Lake 40, a First Nations reserve on the Manitoba-Ontario border, we await the arrival of our hosts, who have generously welcomed us to their community. The Blue Dot Tour has been underway for almost a month, and today I am honoured by the company of David Suzuki, Tara Cullis, Severn Cullis-Suzuki, and physician Michael Dan as we travel from Winnipeg to learn about the blows history dealt this community, and about their resilience and their children’s dreams.
I crane my neck to get a better view of a tall man with broad shoulders and a stern look at the helm of the boat. Later I learn he is a warrior, tasked with peacefully holding space for aboriginal leaders and community members as they demand recognition of their human and indigenous rights.
You start to understand the need for a peaceful warrior once you learn about the relatively recent history of Shoal Lake 40. An Anishinaabe people, their ancestors have lived in this part of the world from time immemorial. They are governed by Seven Natural Laws that describe the duties and responsibilities of every community member: bravery, honesty, humility, love, respect, truth and wisdom.
More than 100 years ago the lands they inhabited were expropriated and turned into an island to ensure the City of Winnipeg had an affordable, long-term supply of drinking water. The aqueduct to carry this water was built over a Native burial ground. Since then, community members have lived in forced isolation, without reliable, all-season access in or out of their community. A barge shuttles cars, people and supplies from a boat landing on Shoal Lake 39’s reserve when the surrounding waters are not frozen over. The community does not have access to waste-disposal or emergency services.
Despite living on the shores of Winnipeg’s water source, residents of Shoal Lake 40 have gone without drinkable tap water for almost two decades. Plans to expand the Trans-Canada Highway include twinning the route through Shoal Lake 40 territory. Local elected leaders have opposed Canada’s newest appropriation plan, because the federal government refuses to share in the cost of a 23-kilometre road to end the community’s imposed isolation.
On June 25, Shoal Lake 40 welcomed allies and politicians to a day dedicated to Freedom Road. Speakers included Shoal Lake 40 Chief Erwin Redsky, Grand Chief Warren White of Treaty 3 territory, Winnipeg Deputy Mayor Mike Pagtakhan, Manitoba’s Municipal Government Minister Drew Caldwell and federal Natural Resources Minister and local MP Greg Rickford.
In agreeing to attend the event, Rickford promised “good news.” But the federal government refused to commit the funds needed to build the road and only repeated a year-old contribution for a design study.
“As a young person who has grown up in Winnipeg, my health and well-being have been made possible because of the access to clean water that comes from Shoal Lake,” said Liz Shearer, a Blue Dot organizer with the David Suzuki Foundation, who attended the event. “At the absolute least, we need to commit to build infrastructure that allows this community to flourish in the same way. We all deserve the right to drink fresh water.”
On my first trip to Shoal Lake I heard firsthand how Foundation co-founders David Suzuki and Tara Cullis regard First Nations. They repeatedly state that the richest education about our interconnection and interdependence with nature comes from indigenous teachings. Along with most Canadians, I believe we all have the right to live in a healthy environment — to fresh air, clean water and safe food. If it is our collective responsibility to protect the people and places we love, we must also dedicate ourselves to stand in solidarity with our friends of Shoal Lake 40 as they celebrate their resilience and courage
Reflecting on her visit to Shoal Lake, Liz Shearer added, “It was encouraging to see so many allies and supporters for Shoal Lake attend the ceremony and announcement. The injustices faced by the Shoal Lake 40 community are rippling widely throughout all of our networks. It’s great to see my municipal and provincial leaders respond to their constituents’ demands to develop this all-weather road. The federal government needs to open their ears to the thousands of Canadian voices supporting Shoal Lake 40.”
The work of my warrior friend is not done. His bravery and wisdom are needed more than ever. Still, I trust Shoal Lake 40 is moving closer — through determined, peaceful and creative advocacy — to a time when their children have the same clean water to drink and opportunities to pursue as most Canadians.
(Image credits: Michael Theis via Flickr, Elizabeth Shearer)