By: Chuck Wright & Christie McLeod
Friends of Shoal Lake 40

Recent announcements from the Mayor’s office and a journey with City Councillors and supporters to Shoal Lake 40 confirm that with demonstrable public support, the construction of an all-weather access road dubbed “Freedom Road” may happen as soon as this winter – which in Chief Erwin Redsky’s words is “a matter of survival… [and] a matter of our most basic human rights.”

At a Shoal Lake 40 panel held this past month at the University of Winnipeg, Shoal Lake 40 First Nation member and Consultation Office, Daryl Redsky, shared about the challenges of living in an isolated community that lacks the basic services most Winnipeggers take for granted. As he stated, “things that are an inconvenience for you are 10 times worse for us.”

Over the past year, Winnipeggers have taken notice of the situation in Shoal Lake 40, and believe it is a valuable opportunity to begin to reconcile relationships with the First Nations people of our country. After all, it was the City of Winnipeg’s utility that displaced Shoal Lake 40 members in 1914 to build the aqueduct and intake works that diverts drinking water to Winnipeg. Persistent indifference to this systemic injustice — an injustice that has precipitated the community’s 18 year boil-water advisory — showcases the institutionalized racism that persists in our country and our city.

This past September, nearly 1,000 Winnipeggers gathered at the Legislative Building to partake in Winnipeg Water Walk, an event that called for hard commitments from the local, provincial and federal governments towards the building of Shoal Lake 40’s all-weather access ‘Freedom Road’. At this event, Premier Greg Selinger announced that Freedom Road would be included in the next Provincial budget.

The now ousted Harper government had provided no indication of changing its position to include funding for 1/3 of the cost of the construction of this all-weather access road to the First Nation, which will cost an estimated $30 million in total. With the newly elected Liberal government, there is hope that the Federal government will fulfill their responsibility to fund the road. During the election campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself promised to address the “inexcusable” situation at Shoal Lake 40, and several newly-elected MPs in Winnipeg have indicated their support for Freedom Road as well.

This summer, Winnipeggers’ quest to assist in bringing justice to Shoal Lake 40 was displayed through several actions. West Broadway Community Ministry held “10 Days for Shoal Lake”, which drew support from various faith communities, and included numerous actions, including a petition to Stephen Harper that stretched as long as a city block. In a matter of weeks, Rick Harp managed to raise over $100,000 of conditional funds online for Freedom Road. Although the lofty goal of $10 million was not met, and thus, no funds were collected or distributed, this campaign was a testament to the staggering support that exists surrounding this issue. The Churches for Freedom Road campaign recruited over 60 Winnipeg churches to post “We support Shoal Lake 40 Freedom Road” signs (and is still growing), and recently expanded the campaign to Rickford’s riding in Kenora, ON. Additionally, outgoing Kildonan-St. Paul MP Joy Smith broke ranks with the Conservative Party when she held a press conference at her constituency office expressing public support for Federal funding of Freedom Road.

Now, a newly-formed coalition, Friends of Shoal Lake 40, has directed their pressure toward City decision-makers to follow Provincial suit and include Freedom Road in their current budget. The technical design of the road is scheduled to be completed in January, requiring funds from all three levels of government to be in place for immediate construction. On October 7, City Councilor for Daniel McIntyre, Cindy Gilroy, introduced a motion that was passed at the Public Works Committee that “commitment made in principle to Shoal Lake 40 First Nation for Freedom Road be sent to the 2016 Capital Budget process.” The motion requires the Chief Financial Officer to take action on this item and be considered by City Council.

To assist Councillors in their consideration of this important issue, Friends of Shoal Lake 40 organized a trip with City Councillors and supporters to Shoal Lake 40 for a tour led by First Nation leadership. The First Nation’s own “Museum of Canadian Human Rights Violations” – a historical tour of Shoal Lake 40 initiated in the fall of 2014 – has proven to be an effective tool for building understanding and amplifying the call on all levels of government to address the glaring inequity that is unavoidably in evidence. This museum, which details over one hundred years of the First Nation’s frustrated attempts to attain justice, has hosted hundreds of concerned Canadian and international visitors. Visitors have included David Suzuki, Maude Barlow and Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce President Dave Angus, Consular officials from the United States and international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Since the October 30 trip, APTN reports that only two councilors remain “undecided” about their support for the funding of Freedom Road.

Following the visit on Oct. 30, Churches for Freedom Road organizer and singer-songwriter, Steve Bell, received a call from the Mayor himself thanking the group for maintaining public support for the Freedom Road, reaffirming his commitment to its funding, and stating, “there may well be problems with the December budget… but Freedom Road won’t be one of them. We all want to get this done.”

Bell is optimistic about the likelihood of construction of Freedom Road starting this winter. He blogged, “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.” He continues,“There is still so much repair to be done.  But this is not an insignificant step.”

Simply getting a safe, equitable connection between communities has demanded sustained, proactive effort. True reconciliation between Winnipeg and their treaty partners at “the other end of the pipe” will present its own challenges. But Friends of Shoal Lake 40, in partnership with the people of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation are committed to overcoming all challenges to a new, respectful relationship.