Open Letter To Prime Minister Stephen Harper Regarding Shoal Lake 40 First Nation
A ROAD TO RECONCILIATION
Dear Mr. Harper,
I am privileged to live in Winnipeg in the Kildonan-St. Paul riding where Conservative MP Joy Smith has served so well for many years. As a musician, I have worked with Joy on a few public events drawing attention to her relentless concern about the sex-slave trade in Canada, and I deeply appreciate the tireless work that she, in concert with our/your government, has done in this area.
However, my concern with this letter is of a different topic.
On Friday July 24, the Winnipeg Free Press reported on the “tsunami” of support welling up for Shoal Lake 40 First Nation and the construction of what has been appropriately dubbed Freedom Road. Indeed, this is a century old travesty that needs to be resolved, and many citizens are deeply troubled that our Federal Government refuses to fully commit to a project that already has the full support of two levels of government. Both the Province of Manitoba and the City of Winnipeg have publicly committed to sharing one third each of the cost of building a road that links Shoal Lake 40 First Nation to the Trans Canada Highway only 28 kilometres away, justly providing them reasonable access to essential services and means of development, and paving the way for a water treatment facility to end their 18 year boil-water advisory.
Many citizens are troubled that our Federal Government recently, at a very strategic and public moment, refused to commit to anything more than a design of the long-denied access road. Afterword, a tearful and exasperated band member Stewart Redsky responded:
“We are studied to death. We are designed to death…We need to hear more than a commitment to design.”
As you well know, a design is not an end to the daily burdens faced by the men, women, children and elders of Shoal Lake 40. As Chief Erwin Redsky has pointed out, Canada paid for two complete engineering designs for water treatment systems for Shoal Lake 40 but the community continues to suffer under an unimaginably long boil water order.
Soon after Canada’s refusal to commit to an actual resolution, in a letter to church leaders in the diocese of Rupert’s Land, Winnipeg Bishop Donald Phillips (Anglican Church of Canada) lamented:
“Particularly in light of all of the recent rhetoric around ‘healing and reconciliation’ with the First Nations of this land, this [Minister Rickford and Minister Valcourt’s] response is unthinkable and once again confirms the lack of integrity in working in partnership with First Nations.”
More recently, one private citizen has started a crowd-funding campaign to raise the one-third share of the cost of Freedom Road that our Federal Government should be pleased to shoulder.
Another citizen started an on-line petition which has quickly received close to 7000 signatures.
A Winnipeg multi-faith group organized 10 Days for Shoal Lake, a campaign to raise awareness among the people of Winnipeg about the suffering of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation.
And yet another group has formed Churches For Freedom Road, which is documenting and gathering photos of the many churches in Winnipeg that are voicing their support for Shoal Lake 40 on their outdoor signs. Every Member of Parliament will soon receive this large poster in their mailbox, and it will be posted throughout the City of Winnipeg.
This letter is to respectfully let you know that these events are happening. You need to be aware, and take seriously that the people whom you represent want our government to do what is right and fair. In this particular case, we sincerely wish for our government to vigorously lead the process rather than drag its heels for reasons that fail to impress.
Personally, I am confident that this road will be built one way or another. I recently wrote a song, which is a rather cheerful instrumental ditty, in anticipation of the opening of Freedom Road.
You may want to consider this government’s legacy carefully as you observe the growing support for Shoal Lake 40 First Nation. How you will be remembered in regard to this fair and just road to reconciliation depends on your response to a situation that should not require a peoples’ movement to make it happen.
Please also note that this particular letter does not intend to be partisan in any way. It is simply a pro-Canada cheer which I hope you hear as a vote for fair and just relations among those who understand all Canadians to be kin, including the lakes that water us and the soils that sustain us—which are widely understood to be the loving gifts of our Creator for the flourishing of all.
“We have a huge opportunity in front of us,” said Chief Erwin Redsky reflecting on the symbolic nature of this particular struggle. Indeed, the powerful symbol of a road to reconciliation will only serve as positive if it actually exists; without it the wounds will not heal, but will fester. Evidenced by these growing campaigns, there are many of us who cast our vote in favour of healing.
Steve Bell / Winnipeg
Links to the various campaigns and events you may want to attend to:
- Petition: Road To Reconciliation (6,688 signatures to date) http://community.sumofus.org/petitions/road-to-reconciliation-provide-access-to-clean-drinking-water-for-the-people-of-shoal-lake
- Crowd Funding Campaign ($77,545 from 738 contributors to date) https://fundrazr.com/campaigns/810jw4
- 10 Days for Shoal Lake (organizers are already planning more events) http://www.westbroadwaycm.org/10daysforshoallake.htm
- Churches For Freedom Road (registering strong and public support from the Christian community)
- Song: “Freedom Road” https://soundcloud.com/steve_bell/freedom-road
“As a partner at the table, we would like to see a commitment, in principle, from the federal government to the construction of Freedom Road upon completion of the detailed design.”
—Manitoba cabinet minister Kevin Chief and Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman (Joint letter to AANDC Minister Valcourt, April 14, 2015)
“It’s a very modest amount of resources to make a huge, huge qualitative difference in the lives of people. There is such a moral responsibility and moral obligation. We recognize that fully. We are completely moved to action.”
—Municipal Government Minister Drew Caldwell, responsible for the Shoal Lake file (Public statement, June 24, 2015)
Small sampling of quotes from the thousands posted to the on-line petition:
Chris B. —This is absolutely the right thing to do.
Sharyl L.— Winnipeg has great drinking water. It is obscene that the people living where it comes from do not!
Janice S.— I can’t believe we are still talking about this, for heaven’s sake. Until we complete the road, we need to air lift treated water to these residents.
JIM K.— IT’S CLEARLY THE ONLY RIGHT THING TO DO.
Donald P.— If all of the sweat, tears, and recalled suffering of the TRC report means anything, we need to step up to this plate … now!
Elizabeth H.— It is incredibly unfair that they must suffer while we enjoy the privilege of readily available clean drinking water.
Allison L.— It is outrageous that there is no proper road or mainland access for these people.
John and Joy R.— It seems to me it is obvious that this just needs to be done. As a Canadian taxpayer I vote in favour of helping this group of people.
Anya M.— The least we can do…
Andrew S.— I’ve benefitted from Shoal Lake water all my life. Time to live up to our obligations to First Nations.
Penelope S.— When I was a child growing up in Winnipeg I asked where water came from. It was explained to me that it came from a very far away place called Shoal Lake. I always appreciated the wonderful tap water Winnipeg had. But to learn as an adult the price that water has cost the people of Shoal Lake I am absolutely disgusted.
Mary T. —It’s a step on the road to reconciliation
Merv S.— its only right for that community’s well being
Cindy B. —We should be ashamed!
Charlotte L.— We must urge our government to do the RIGHT thing. We have exploited our First Nations people long enough. The TRC recognized our wrongs and yet our government refuses to right an obvious wrong. I want my voice to be heard!
Katie J.— I just visited Winnipeg for the first time a few days ago (I’m from New Brunswick) and was blown away by the beauty of the city and the strength of its people. This is the least we can do.
Catherine H.— When the ferry isn’t working, they can’t even drive on and off the reserve to get things they need!
Rev. Nancy B.— Our gov’t should be ashamed, our First Nations people live in Third World conditions.
…many, many more comments on the petition site.
Sampling of photos from the Churches for Freedom Road Campaign: