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Shoal Lake’s Stewart Redsky shows United Church visitors the dike that diverts the tannin-laden waters of Snowshoe Bay from the pristine waters of Indian Bay, source of Winnipeg’s drinking water. Photo courtesy of Meg Illman-White

A road to freedom

United churches in Manitoba and northern Ontario call for a road to be built to an isolated First Nation

By Susan Peters

Located on the Manitoba-Ontario border, the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation is a picturesque terrain of blue lake and pines in the Canadian Shield. But the community has a big problem: it’s isolated.

The reserve was turned into an island in 1914, when construction began on a 153-kilometre aqueduct to pipe water from Shoal Lake to Winnipeg. In winter, anyone leaving the reserve must cross a canal via a temporary metal bridge, which leads onto an ice road over swamp lands. In summer, they boat to a neighbouring reserve and take a toll road that costs $25 per vehicle.

Shoal Lake’s 266 residents say their isolation makes it difficult to get to jobs and access medical treatment. It’s tough to remove garbage and sewage from the island. And without a decent road, the community can’t bring in the needed equipment to build its own water-treatment plant; Shoal Lake residents have been under a boil-water advisory for 18 years. Ironically, the lake surrounding their island remains the source of Winnipeg’s drinking water.

Now activists, including churches, are raising awareness and pressuring politicians to build “Freedom Road” — a 27-kilometre all-seasons road that would connect Shoal Lake to the Trans-Canada Highway.

In Kenora, Ont., the closest nearby town, Knox United and St. Andrew’s United have joined the cause. A group of 13 parishioners from both churches toured the island in September. Later, the participants shared their findings with members of their churches.

“The clarity of voice was that the road has to happen now,” says Knox’s Rev. Meg Illman-White. “It’s really good to see the support, but at the same time, people at Shoal Lake are saying, ‘What good will this do?’”

In Winnipeg, the West Broadway Community Ministry organized 10 Days for Shoal Lake, an interfaith campaign that drew support from the city’s Hindu, Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities. As part of the initiative, volunteers “sold” glasses of water at the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival to raise awareness.

Another campaign, Churches for Freedom Road, saw over 50 churches (including several United churches) use their billboards to support building a better road. For example, Winnipeg’s Augustine United changed its street sign to read, “‘Water, water everywhere — but not a safe drop to drink.’ Support Shoal Lake 40.”

Other local efforts included a crowdfunding campaign that raised $100,000 in pledges toward the road’s costs, and a September water walk. Faith-based and secular groups have recently come together to form the Friends of Shoal Lake coalition.

Some Winnipeg residents only partially understand the source of their drinking water, says Steve Bell, a musician turned organizer with Churches for Freedom Road. “I kind of knew. But there was a moment when I let the information in the back of my head come to the front of the head.” When they learn the facts, most people are surprised and embarrassed and want to support change, Bell says.

In January, engineers will release their design for an upgraded road that can be driven in all seasons. The sticking point is the $30 million price tag for construction. The Manitoba and Winnipeg governments have each pledged a third of the road’s costs. The federal Liberals pledged to support construction during the election; whether they will fulfil that promise is unclear.

Cuyler Cotton, a spokesperson for Shoal Lake 40, describes those participating in the faith-based campaigns as “canaries in the coal mine, setting off the moral alarm. . . . People are attempting to be good allies. They’re people of good intent, speaking within their own communities. And that’s how it has to be.” At the same time, he points out that raising awareness does not build roads: changing public opinion has to be reflected in action.

Susan Peters is a writer and editor in Winnipeg.

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