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Steve Bell calls on churches to support Shoal Lake 40

In the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee findings, Juno Award-winning Christian recording artist Steve Bell is asking for churches across Canada to bring awareness to an issue that’s been overlooked for far too long.

Kekekoziibi, or Shoal Lake 40, is an Ojibway First Nations reserve near Kenora, Ontario. Shoal Lake 40 has supplied Winnipeg’s drinking water since 1916, but has been under a boil water advisory for 18 years. Shoal Lake 40 has been appealing to governments at every level to provide a road, they call it the Freedom Road, to give them year round reliable access to the Trans Canada Highway.

In June 2015, the City of Winnipeg and the Province of Manitoba agreed to each pay a third of the cost of building the 28km Freedom Road ($10 million each), but the Federal government refused and instead committed $1 million to a design study only. Chief Erwin Redsky and his family openly wept.

Residents use a ferry (when it’s working) and ice roads to get to the mainland, but it’s during the changeable spring and fall when the ice is too thin to drive on but too thick for the ferry, when Shoal Lake 40 is completely isolated, that life gets even more difficult. People have died crossing the ice on foot to bring back food, bottled water and mail, or to seek medical attention – basic human rights.

The history

Shoal Lake 40 residents were relocated when the City of Winnipeg appropriated their land to build an aqueduct in 1914. The 140km aqueduct, completed in 1916, continues to supply Winnipeg’s water today.

Documents shared with Christian Courier by Shoal Lake 40, show that in 1914 the Indian Agent for Kenora wrote to Ottawa asking for clarification, on behalf of Shoal Lake 40 residents, on how much land would be needed for the aqueduct and what compensation would be offered.

Ottawa’s reply: “The Corporation of the city of Winnipeg has the power to expropriate the lands required, but you may assure the Indians that their rights will be safeguarded by the Department” (see image).

Why the boil water advisory?

When Shoal Lake residents were relocated to a nearby peninsula to make way for the aqueduct, crews cut out a channel to redirect contaminated water from nearby Falcon Lake away from the city aqueduct intake. Shoal Lake 40 was stuck on an island and the slow contamination of Shoal Lake began. A gravel dam keeps Winnipeg’s water clean and Shoal Lake 40 was left with the resulting mess.

The long-standing boil water advisory is one of the longest running advisories in existence, according to Health Canada. As of June 30, 2015, there were 132 Drinking Water Advisories in effect in 91 First Nations communities across Canada, excluding British Columbia.

With no reliable year-round access to the mainland, Shoal Lake 40 is unable to build a water treatment facility, deal with sewage treatment, garbage disposal or build an economy.

Winnipeg resident Steve Bell heard about the Freedom Road in June 2015. “I don’t want to say I was outraged, but deeply saddened and shocked that we can be so inhumane to one another, especially in a country with so much wealth.”

In the weeks since, Bell’s “Churches For Freedom Road” campaign has gathered nearly 8,000 signatures in an online petition. Organizers are hoping for 10,000 signatures before delivering the petition to the House of Commons.

In addition to the petition, Bell and his team are asking churches to put “We Support Shoal Lake 40 Freedom Road” on their signs, take a photo, and send it to moc.liamg@daormodeerfrofsehcruhc. The pictures will be used to create a collage that will be delivered to every MP in Ottawa.

On August 10, Conservative MP from Manitoba Joy Smith shared with the CBC that she had spoken with Greg Rickford, Natural Resources Minister, and that the federal government would fund Freedom Road.

Later that day, Smith said she had misspoken, that Rickford had not promised any new funding for construction of Freedom Road, and reiterated the $1million pledge for a design study. Justin Trudeau has promised that, if elected, the Federal Liberal party will fund Freedom Road. Thomas Mulcair, leader of the Federal NDP, has made similar promises.

Amy Knight, Bell’s administrative assistant, brought the plight of Shoal Lake 40 to Bell’s attention and has been coordinating things behind the scenes. “So far we have signs from 55 churches from more than 10 denominations, so we are very pleased with this. Over the next month we aim to vastly expand the scope of support into other parts of Southern Manitoba, Western Ontario and the rest of Canada.”
Steve Bell gave an update on the initiative to CC via email from Winnipeg: “The support is coming from right across the country. . . . The Church is waking to the reality that redress and reconciliation is costly, yes, but joyful work as well.”

Bell offered a caution, however, for those who think that their voice, their support for this project, is no longer needed. “But let’s remember that support aside, nothing has yet changed on the ground for Shoal Lake 40. We must keep up polite but firm pressure until construction begins.”

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