Shoal Lake, Ontario – Health worker Linda Redsky sits at her kitchen table, remembering when she almost drowned bringing groceries back from the market.
With no roads to her community in western Ontario, she had to walk across the frozen surface of Shoal Lake, a sprawling body of water just north of the Canada-United States border.
She and her husband Wyne were walking back to their home on the lakeshore when they heard loud cracks all around them. “I went completely under the ice,” she says, her voice trembling. “I remember looking up and it was like a moment of clarity. “I could see the hole I’d fallen through, I could see stars in the sky and I was sinking.”
But Wyne grabbed her hand and pulled her to safety. They kept each other warm until help came, and it wasn’t the first time that the couple had rescued each other.
“At times like that I hate living here,” said Redsky. “It’s beautiful in summer, but I hate those trips across the ice.”
The Redskys live in an indigenous First Nation community, known as Shoal Lake 40. Though they’re just a dozen kilometres from the Trans-Canada highway and a few hours’ drive from a major city, their community had been cut off from Canada’s transport network for 100 years.
This isolation has been part of a long-running dispute that many First Nations people believe is emblematic of their troubled relations with the Canadian state.
In 1913, the city of Winnipeg – about 180km to the west – got the Canadian government to evict the people of Shoal Lake from their lakeside village so they could build a fresh water intake for a growing urban population.
Then the city dug a canal to keep the water clean. That canal turned the new Shoal Lake settlement into an island, cutting off the inhabitants from the forests, trade routes, roads and railroad lines all around them.
“We were blockaded,” said the elected chief of Shoal Lake, Erwin Redsky. “It’s manmade isolation. We’re not really remote. We can hear the traffic on the Trans-Canada [highway] and hear the trains go by.”
In January, that isolation came to a temporary end with the opening of what Chief Redsky calls “Freedom Road”. Only open in winter, the road crosses a steel bridge that Chief Redsky demanded for years to end his community’s reliance on the often-dangerous ice crossing over Shoal Lake.
“To us it’s freedom, at least for now and until we build a permanent link. No more danger when the ice is thin,” he says. “People have been just driving on the road for no reason, just to see what it’s like.”
Tom Ross helped build Freedom Road. He’s an experienced heavy equipment operator and despite being in his 70s, he didn’t miss a day’s work as the road was cut through forest, swamp and rock.
“It was like Alcatraz here,” he says, laughing. “You couldn’t get off the island, but now everybody’s free to go and come, anytime.”
But Shoal Lake’s problems are far from over. There are few jobs and even the lake’s abundant fish and mineral-bearing rocks can’t be exploited, because of the City of Winnipeg’s insistence that no development take place near the source of its drinking water. Once-vibrant gold mines and commercial fishing have closed.
Selling Shoal Lake’s water
|Chief Redsky says support from the Canadian government has not been forthcoming [Jet Belgraver/Al Jazeera]
Now Winnipeg has big plans for its century-old water supply. A project to install central Canada’s largest inland port and a proposal to sell Shoal Lake Water to surrounding municipalities has given Chief Redsky an opportunity to call attention to his community’s plight.
He and his fellow councillors have opposed the use of Shoal Lake water in these new schemes and have managed to get them delayed, if not stopped.
Treaties between the British colonial government and Canada’s First Nations explicitly allot water rights to aboriginal communities, and Chief Redsky intends to press that claim in the courts and international tribunals if necessary.
“Water is sacred to us, to all life, and our treaties call for the water to be shared. So why is only one community – Winnipeg – benefitting from this resource and not all of us?” the chief asks. “We’ll do what it takes to share this benefit.”
Shoal Lake people, he points out, have to drink bottled water because they have no purification plant.
The City of Winnipeg isn’t commenting on the case while the legal ramifications are studied, but city officials have reached out to Chief Redsky, and even helped fund Freedom Road. The provincial governments of Ontario and Manitoba have also been offering limited support to the chief’s struggle.
What hasn’t been forthcoming, says the chief, is support from Canada’s federal government, which has constitutional jurisdiction over First Nations affairs. Chief Redsky says he’s still waiting for a substantive reply to a letter sent in January to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Some members of his community, he says, are tired of waiting for Ottawa or some other government to resolve their grievances. With an eye to the recent Idle No More protests and hunger strikes, they’re looking to take matters into their own hands.
“We’re a point now in terms of our relationship with Canada. We’re at a crossroads where there’s a road to reconciliation and a road to confrontation.
“We prefer reconciliation, we prefer sharing our resources, consultation, as promised in our treaties,” Chief Redsky says, leaving it clear – if unsaid – that confrontation cannot be ruled out.
Follow Daniel Lak on Twitter: @yeti2yeti