It's time to pay the water bill we owe Shoal Lake 40 First Nation

This morning, I turned on my bathroom faucet and took a shower, gave a tap a twist and brushed my teeth, then turned on the dishwasher.

The coup de grâce? I got into my truck, pulled out onto a paved road and drove into downtown Winnipeg. But heck, if I’d wanted to I could have hit the Trans-Canada and gone anywhere.

It seems so simple, so obvious, so Canadian that it doesn’t need to be mentioned. Only it does, because for some Canadians none of these things are possible.

Just 180 kilometres east of Winnipeg, on the Manitoba-Ontario border, is Shoal Lake 40 First Nation. For 17 years the community has been under a boil water advisory, despite having supplied Winnipeg with clean drinking water for a century. After being relocated to a man-made island and having 3,000 acres of its land given to the City of Winnipeg in 1912-1919, the community was left relying on ferries and winter roads to reach the outside world.

For a brief moment last week, it seemed all three levels of government would fund the bridges and 28 kilometres of all-weather road Shoal Lake needs to reach the Trans-Canada highway and, by extension, anywhere else. The City of Winnipeg pledged $4 million and the governments of Ontario and Manitoba agreed to funding, assuming the federal government would give $10 million. It refused. Instead it offered $1 million for a design study. The estimated total cost for the bridges and road, which would also allow Shoal Lake 40 to move towards building a new water treatment facility, is $30 million.

What projects do garner that kind of cash? Memorial to victims of communism: $6 million. Investors Group Field: $208.5 million. Human Rights Museum: $351 million. Et cetera.

Refusing to provide Shoal Lake 40 with clean drinking water and a permanent road isn’t about cost. It’s about priorities. It says indigenous people aren’t a priority for the federal government.

But while it was Ottawa that signed Treaty No. 3, nothing is stopping Manitoba from stepping up with a contribution recognizing that 50 per cent of the province’s population drinks water from Shoal Lake. Likewise, Winnipeg might consider, in light of its sole reliance on Shoal Lake for water, flowing a little more than $4 million in Shoal Lake’s direction. Forty dollars from each Winnipegger could solve the problem, too. The answer should be common sense. We’ve been running up a tab for years and now somebody has to pick up the bill.

Shannon VanRaes is a Winnipeg-based journalist and photojournalist who spends her days contributing to the Manitoba Co-operator and her nights covering urban affairs.

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