Shoal Lake 40

I recently watched a VICE documentary on Shoal Lake 40, an isolated First Nation’s reserve that straddles the border of Manitoba and Ontario. I was first drawn to the documentary after seeing promotional clips of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hauling large jugs of drinking water door-to-door (Shoal Lake 40, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the community, has been on a boil water advisory for 20 years), but as I started watching the documentary it was the strength of the people, their sense of family and their sense of community that stirred my emotions most.

For those of you who haven’t had a chance to watch this documentary (and I highly recommend you do), here is some quick background information on Shoal Lake 40.

Shoal Lake 40 is a beautiful, but struggling community that was annexed by the City of Winnipeg in 1915 in order to grant the city access to clean water. Since that time, Winnipeg has accessed its clean water supply through Shoal Lake via a 135km aqueduct (CBC), and as a result the Shoal Lake 40 reserve has now been without clean water for 20 years. To place the aqueduct, the City of Winnipeg dug up Shoal Lake 40’s sacred, ancestral burial grounds so that today, this incredibly sacred land is fenced off by ‘No Trespassing’ signs. Without a water supply of their own, Shoal Lake 40 has been on a boil water advisory for 20 years and bottled water is delivered door-to-door for all residents. The community does not have a high school, and as a result, teens have to move to neighbouring cities to continue their education after grade eight. In addition to this, there is no road in or out of the community.

Reserves in general, of which there are 3,100 in Canada, are almost always disconnected from major epicentres and large cities. Reserves were created to cut-off Indigenous people from mainstream culture, and in doing so often cut off reserve communities from accessing their basic human rights – rights like access to clean water, access to a basic education, and access to basic healthcare, things we all take for granted.  Rights that should be a ‘given’ in a country as fortunate as Canada.

At the beginning of the documentary, we meet Sarain Carson-Fox, an Anishnaabe, second-degree Medeweuin woman from Batchawana whose Dad committed suicide when she was 15 years old. Sarain stays with us throughout the film, narrating, engaging with members of the community and guiding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau through his day on the reserve. She is incredibly forthcoming with her feelings on Canada’s treatment of First Nation’s people, and has no hesitation when it comes to sharing these feelings with our Prime Minister.

Early on the film we also meet John Ross, the father of a young girl named Joni who took her own life this past January at the age of 15. On camera, he’s carrying a music box that he had planned to give to Joni on Valentine’s Day. The top of the quaint little box reads: “My daughter I love you today, tomorrow, always.” It’s heartbreaking to watch John on camera. As he speaks about his daughter, he speaks about the joy she brought to his life, the brightness she brought to his days and his dreams and aspirations for her, like finishing high school and going to university. As kids in the community reflect about Joni one young man describes her as “cool, funny and always smiling.”

Further into the film we meet Stewart – an incredibly bubbly and friendly father and grandfather in the Shoal Lake 40 community. Stewart shares his horrific experience in the residential school system, which later in the film he says has made him a “destroyed individual.” In 1968, the year he refers to as “being in hell,” Stewart recalls his experience being physically taken away from his home in Kenora and sent to Shenwak Residential School. Stewart is overwhelmed with emotion as he discusses the abuse he experienced while at Shenwak Residential School and the devastating impact it’s had on him and his life. As we learn from Sarain, the residential school system survivors like Stewart “…became the parents of the youth we are seeing today” who are struggling so much. The Government of Canada has acknowledged this inter-generational damage caused by the residential school system and issued a formal apology in 2008.

These three characters offer a tiny glimpse into the immense challenges faced by Indigenous communities, and the heartbreaking impact these challenges have had on today’s Indigenous youth. Suicide is, tragically, a recurring theme throughout the film, and despite the fact that youth suicide epidemics in Indigenous communities have become topical in the media as of late, through this film you’ll learn that this has been an issue in First Nation’s communities for a long time. In Sarain’s words, “pain and suffering have become immersed into Indigenous people’s daily lives,” and “in some ways, not living through the kinds of situations Indigenous people are dealing with is easier.”

Despite the mistreatment that has defined Shoal Lake 40’s relationship with the Canadian government, upon his arrival Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is greeted by a warm, welcoming crowd – people are cheering, taking photos, selfies and videos, and lining up to shake his hand. There is a definite buzz in the air and everyone seems genuinely excited to have the Prime Minister visiting their community.

As Prime Minister Trudeau and Sarain begin their day, they start by delivering bottled water to the Shoal Lake 40 residents. As they walk from door-to-door, the Prime Minister’s reception is much the same as his arrival, one of welcoming and excitement. People ask to take selfies with him, they ask for the PM’s autograph and no one seems to want to discuss the giant elephant in the room – that the Government of Canada is responsible for providing everyone with clean, fresh drinking water and that the people of Shoal Lake 40 have to completely rely on others to deliver them this basic life necessity.

Further into his visit, the Prime Minister is introduced to Stewart. Stewart speaks to the Prime Minister emotionally about his horrific experience in the residential school system and passionately about Shoal Lake 40’s fight for ‘Freedom Road’ – a road the community has been petitioning the federal government for that would connect Shoal Lake 40 to the Trans-Canada Highway, essentially a road that would finally connect the reserve to the main land. At present, there is literally no road that can transport people to-and-from the community. In the winter, residents have died attempting to cross an ice road out of the community and many ambulances simply cannot make the trip. In the summer, residents rely on an aging ferry that recently failed government inspection (The Globe and Mail).

The residents of Shoal Lake 40 and their many supporters have been petitioning all three levels of government to fund this road for many, many years. The former Conservative government refused to commit to help fund construction of the road despite willingness by both Manitoba and Winnipeg to share the cost. (The Globe and Mail). Following years of petitioning, a ‘Walk to Winnipeg’ initiated by the community in 2007, and years of stalled decision making the commitment has finally been made. All three levels of government – federal, provincial and municipal – have now promised the construction of ‘Freedom Road,’ announcing $30 million in funding this past December, 2015. Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett called the road “an important first step: in repairing relations between Canada and its indigenous people.” To me, it seems this is an important first step in repairing a massive injustice.

I know they say a picture is worth a thousand words, but a video must be worth ten thousand more. I learned so many things watching this quick, forty-minute video – the most saddening of which is that our treatment of First Nations people has been one of our country’s greatest failures. But the most important takeaway I had after watching this was how proud the people of Shoal Lake 40 are of their community, how proud they are of their history and the yearning they have for hope and trust in Canada’s political leaders.  Towards the end of the film, Prime Minister Trudeau addresses Stewart, saying: “Thank you for your trust in Canada, we will not let you down.” Visits like this are so incredibly important for a Prime Minister to do. It’s 100% necessary for Canada’s political leaders to see first-hand what Indigenous communities are struggling with, the neglect they have been shown and how badly they need help. The Shoal Lake 40 community is looking for hope and has a longing to be able to trust Canada’s elected leaders. My hope is that elected officials, the media and the people of Canada continue to give these issues the attention and priority they deserve. Hopefully, someday soon we can make this right.

Authored by: Emma McKay, Co-Founder and Editor 

Shoal Lake 40
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Sarain Carson-Fox (Source: VICE Canada)

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