If you live in Winnipeg, you likely made coffee, brushed your teeth, or cooked using water from Shoal Lake today.
But the people who live on its shores — members of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation — have been denied that right for 24 years.
On Wednesday, Sept. 15, the community expects their boil water advisory to be lifted — nearly a quarter-century after it was first put in place, in 1997.
“We’ve been waiting for this for a lot of years,” Chief Vernon Redsky said.
“It’s about time we have something in place for clean water, members, youth, elders. It’s been a long struggle, it’s finally going to happen.”
Every day of that long wait, the City of Winnipeg has taken about 100 million gallons of water from the lake, something it’s been doing since 1919.
“For (members) to have lived this, they’re just looking forward to the day they can actually drink the water from the tap.”
Friend of the community Cuyler Cotton tries to put it in perspective.
“There will be members voting in (this month’s) federal election who’ve never known what it was like to have safe drinking water come from their tap.”
Construction of the site itself has taken less than a year, but the journey to get a shovel in the ground spanned more than two decades of frustration and rejection.
Drinking water was already an issue on the table when Redsky first ran for Chief in the late 1990s.
“The struggle the first few times was the access issue,” he said.
Shoal Lake 40 had no land connection to major routes. Instead, residents wishing to leave the community would have to take their car on a short barge trip across the lake to Shoal Lake 39, their sister First Nation in Ontario.
That barge would later lead to supply issues, but also represented an inconvenience for members of Shoal Lake 40.
“We had a curfew,” Redsky said.
“The barge shut down at midnight. So if you were in Winnipeg and it was 10 p.m., you’d have to zip it home or you’d be sleeping in your car until 7 the next morning.”
The barge was far from brand-new, and would often break down, he added.
In shoulder seasons, the ice on the lake would start to thin, the paths on them becoming unstable and dangerous.
When it came to building a treatment plant, the community was told hauling material on barges would be too expensive — shutting down a pair of proposals in the early 2000s and 2010s, respectively.
So for more than a decade, the First Nation yearned for land access of their own via a proposed 14-kilometre stretch of gravel road.
Coun. Bill Wahpay said there’s some irony in the First Nation’s former predicament — that road would require a bridge crossing the aqueduct the City of Winnipeg cut through the land more than a century ago, severing the community’s connection to the mainland.
The boil water advisory remained.
The First Nation only worked out its bottled water agreement with the feds after their first pitch to build a treatment plant was rejected, said Redsky, adding it’s not as easy as going to the store and picking up a case of 24 plastic bottles.
Each of the bottles weighs 45 pounds when full, making them difficult for young children or elders to retrieve the water inside.
In 2007, residents marched from the First Nation to the site of the soon-to-be-built Canadian Human Rights Museum, demanding change.
But it would take another decade of discussions with the city of Winnipeg, provinces of Ontario and Manitoba and the government of Canada to achieve their goal.
“We’ve lived here all our lives. We know what we need. The professionals, people who never lived here — they always seem to know what we want.”
So when Redsky met with government officials for the third time, he put his foot down.
“We sat face-to-face with the bureaucrats in Thunder Bay, and all I said was, ‘Don’t f–k around with us any more.’”
The community’s persistence paid off in 2019, as the grand opening of Freedom Road was finally celebrated.
Not only did the road immediately improve the quality of life for residents, but suddenly, more opportunities were on the table.
Talks soon resumed about the construction of a plant, and also a new K-7 elementary school.
Construction on both projects began in late 2020.
The First Nation partnered with construction firms in a joint venture to provide work opportunities for their residents.
Resident Anthony Green is a beneficiary of that — not only helping to build the plant, but now staying on as the site’s lead operator.
“I still feel a little overwhelmed ever since day one when I was told this. It’s still a bit surreal.”
“I just can’t wait to start. I’m learning new things everyday.”
Although he’s the expert, it’ll feel strange when the switch is flipped on Sept. 15.
“Ever since I can remember, I drank water straight from the lake. These days, you can’t do that.”
“I’m going to be a little ‘iffy’ still, even though I’ll be the one treating this water,” he said. “It’ll take some getting used to.”
Green understands changing the behaviour that’s been ingrained into his neighbours for the past quarter-century won’t happen overnight.
“(My aunt) told me ‘I don’t want to drink the water right away.’ I told her that’s fine. Whenever you’re ready, you can drink it. We have state-of-the-art technology for drinking the water, and it’s going to be safe.”
A new era
Between the road, school and water treatment plant, a lot has changed in the small community in the past few years.
While most members feel it’s long overdue, they’re also optimistic future change may come a lot quicker than it did before.
Other residents believe the lack of land access was driving members to leave the community, but they want to come back now.
Green said the new infrastructure will have a huge impact on his three-year-old son.
“It’s a chance (for him) to grow up in his homeland and get to know his family.”
“I offered to teach the youth here to play guitar or give them welding lessons (in the new school).”
While still trying to comprehend the transformation in such a short time, Green’s also hopeful there’s more good news where that came from.
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