Freedom Road: From Charity to Responsibility

A view of Shoal Lake from the barge which residents use to cross over to the mainland.

A view of Shoal Lake from the barge which residents use to cross over to the mainland.

Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of working together with Churches for Freedom Road as we lend our support to the work of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation. I encourage you to follow the links to learn the full story of Winnipeg's water extraction and the forced relocation and isolation of Shoal Lake 40, a community living under a boil water advisory for over 17 years. The following blog was also posted on the Churches for Freedom Road website.

If you were to walk down the streets of Winnipeg and ask random people where their water comes from, and they were to respond with, “Shoal Lake,” I would be proud. If those strangers were then to go on to explain that Winnipeg’s water extraction has caused the forced isolation and boil water advisory of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, I would be amazed. That would mean that the work of Shoal Lake 40 advocates over the past 100 years has finally paid off. It would mean that settler allies of Shoal Lake 40 have played their small part in bringing awareness to those living on the other end of the aqueduct.

Winnipeggers marching in support of Shoal Lake and Freedom Road in front of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, whose water comes from Shoal Lake.

Winnipeggers marching in support of Shoal Lake and Freedom Road in front of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, whose water comes from Shoal Lake.

There has been a lot of activity and momentum behind the building of Freedom Road, which will finally bring Shoal Lake 40 out of forced isolation and prevent even more lives from being lost. There have been rallies, marches and demonstrations. The local and national media have covered this story on high priority. Winnipeg’s mayor, our Prime Minister and David Suzuki are some of the notables who have visited the community. We have put pressure on all three levels of government to pledge their support in real dollars to the building of the road. And hundreds of churches have shown their support to fix this injustice that has gone on for far too long.

Although things are moving slowly, it seems inevitable that Freedom Road will actually be built. Shoal Lake 40 will finally have a safe way to access the mainland to go to work, for their children to get to school, and to continue bringing bottled water into their community on a daily basis. Stuart Redsky (former chief) will finally be able to tell his grandson that hope is not dead, because after the disappointment of walking all the way from Shoal Lake to Winnipeg to have their voice heard, his grandson said “we walked for nothing.” But nothing might have turned into something. Our deaf ears may have finally started to hear.

When the construction of Freedom Road begins, it will be a celebration. Settler allies will surely be invited if Shoal Lake 40’s generosity is any indication of the continued relationship they want to have with us. Some might suggest closing Shoal Lake 40’s living Museum of Canadian Human Rights Violations. And there will be a huge, huge temptation for us to say:

“Well done Winnipeg, you did a good thing. We Manitobans are the most charitable people in Canada!”

It is so easy to put Shoal Lake 40 into the category of lost and hopeless people who need our help. It is so easy for us to see ourselves as the heroes, helping those in third-world situations. It is so easy for us to look at our hearts and be happy with the amount of love and generosity that we brought to make Freedom Road happen.

Please. Let us not confuse responsibility and charity.

Charity is when you give something of yourself voluntarily out of the goodness of your heart. You may see someone in need or hurting and find creative ways of helping him or her—not out of obligation, but out of love.

Responsibility, on the other hand, is living up to the agreements that you make with someone: doing your part. If you and your partner have a child together, you, in essence, make an agreement with each other to care for and provide for that child. If you were to walk out on your family, that does not rid you of your obligation to care for that child. You still have a legal duty to pay child support, whether you want to or not. It is not charity when you do pay your child support, it is just fulfilling your obligation. We have a name for parents who walk out on their kids and don’t live up to their responsibilities: deadbeats. 

For the past 100 years, Winnipeg has been the deadbeat in their relationship with Shoal Lake 40. Let’s forget about the inherent injustice of the forced relocation and isolation of that community. We could find some responsibility in there, but some would refuse it. Let’s forget about the treaties we signed with First Nations. We could for sure find some responsibility in there for us, but some simply discount it. 

Let’s simply focus on the 1989 Tripartite agreement, a legally binding document between Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Shoal Lake 40.

In 1989, in exchange for Shoal Lake’s commitment to protect the quality of the water that flows through every water pipe in Winnipeg, and in return for the First Nation’s abandonment of a valuable cottage development plan that Winnipeg was worried about, the city and province agreed to “…make every effort to promote economic development beneficial to the band in the Shoal Lake area.”

The canal that diverges water away from the aqueduct intake that turned the community of Shoal Lake 40 into an island.

The canal that diverges water away from the aqueduct intake that turned the community of Shoal Lake 40 into an island.

Year after year, members of these three parties meet to discuss how this “environmental management agreement” is functioning. Shoal Lake has always lived up to its responsibility, even at the cost of giving up their former economic potential. Winnipeg and Manitoba, however, have always been deadbeat partners. We have made no real effort to promote economic development. We have not lived up to our obligation. 

So, as easy as it is for us to pat ourselves on the back because of our “charitable” hearts, let us pause to realize that giving our voice to Shoal Lake 40’s work of building Freedom Road is simply the first step in living up to our end of the deal. We are finally doing what we should have done all along. We are finally taking our first steps into healing the relationship with the people who protect our water and suffer because of it.

What you will quickly realize when you visit Shoal Lake 40, learn about their story, or add your voice to theirs, is that the people being charitable are actually the members of that First Nations community. They have been cheated. They have been isolated. They have been made to live under a boil water advisory. They have watched as their community members died falling through the ice to get to the other side of the lake. And yet, after we have failed to fulfill our obligation, they still fulfill theirs. We have a lot to learn from them about what it really means to be charitable – to be honourable.

We also have a lot more to do to live up to our responsibility. Building Freedom Road is just the first step. There is so much more our city and province need to do to fulfill their obligation in the Tripartite agreement. There is a relationship here that will continue, and we have a choice of what kind of partner we want to be.

The next Tripartite agreement meeting will be held at Winnipeg's City Hall, on Dec. 12, 2016.