For the last century the people of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation have solved many of Winnipeg’s water problems, and they have paid dearly for it. The story of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation stands as a microcosm for the enduring inequalities upon which Canada is built.
How can we talk meaningfully about reconciliation if we cannot build a 27-kilometre road to an Anishinabe community that is cut off from basic necessities in the interests of a city a two-hour drive away?
At the turn of the 20th century, Winnipeg was beset with the problems that come when people do not have access to reliable and clean water. In the 1870s Winnipeggers collected rainwater, used private wells or bought from water men who delivered river water for a price.
In 1880, the city offered a generous deal to a private company to supply water drawn and minimally processed from the Assiniboine River. In 1900, the city developed a municipal system based on artesian wells, but there were almost no water mains in the working-class, disproportionately immigrant North End.
The rapidly growing city ricocheted from one public health crisis to another, many of them related to insufficient and poor quality water. There were fires. There was disease. For example, in 1904, Winnipeg’s death rate from typhoid, sometimes called Red River fever, was 24.85 per 10,000, higher than any other major North American or European city.
By 1906, the city and the province acknowledged the need for a permanent and public solution to Winnipeg’s ongoing water problems. In 1913, they set their sights on what a city report described as “practically inexhaustible supply” of clean, good tasting water from Shoal Lake.
If the officials involved in developing this plan thought much about the Anishinaabe people of Shoal Lake, they left little evidence of it. Newspaper accounts and government reports made only occasional and dismissive mention of the “Indians” for whom Indian Bay was obviously named.
The unvarnished colonialism of the Indian Act empowered the federal government to act, and it did so in 1915 by selling land, lake bed and islands of the Shoal Lake 40 reserve to the Greater Winnipeg Water District.
The city paid the federal government $3 an acre for 355 acres of Shoal Lake 40’s land on the shore of Indian Bay and 50 cents an acre for lake bed and islands.
Work on the cement aqueduct that would carry water from Shoal Lake to Winnipeg began in 1914. This was a costly and ambitious project, especially as the First World War was breaking out. At one point, 2,500 men worked building the aqueduct. In 1918, the water began to flow; Winnipeg’s water supply has been secure ever since.
The people of Shoal Lake 40 aren’t mentioned on the monument that celebrates the Winnipeg Aqueduct at Stephen Juba Park. But this history is well-known to Shoal Lake residents.
Their community was cut off and made an artificial island. They have been on a boil-water advisory for 18 years, which is about as long as such boil-water advisories have been issued. Without permanent road access there is no garbage removal, emergency and postal service on the “island.”