By Nina Kalirai
Everyone in Canada is entitled to the right of water that is safe for them to use both domestically and personally. However, that does not mean that there isn’t a large portion of the Canadian population, who to this day, do not have access to clean drinking water. What is even more unfortunate is that many Canadians are unaware of the ongoing water crisis that has been happening for decades.
In this interview VIBE TALKS Correspondent Nina Kalirai speaks with Vernon Redsky, Councillor of Shoal Lake 40, an indigenous reserve located in Manitoba.
We discuss the ongoing water crisis at Shoal Lake 40 and how the community copes. We also discuss how the Canadian government has failed the community at Shoal Lake 40, and what the government should be doing to help.
Nina: When did the water crisis at Shoal Lake 40 begin and how?
Vernon: Probably, in the late 90’s. We started noticing the number of cottages popping out of no where in the lake, and the number of people that were moving into the Falcon Lake area. The Falcon Lake area, kind of drains into our lake.
Nina: What percentage of Shoal Lake 40 is currently without clean water?
Vernon: 100 per cent.
Nina: In what ways does the ongoing water crisis affect the community?
Vernon: I think it’s all about the availability of good, clean water. Back in the late 2000’s, we managed to persuade the department to fund us bottled water, which was from Kenowa. They agreed to provide us until we were able to get a plant for the community.
Nina: What are some of the contaminants that are in the water?
Vernon: I’m not an expert in that. We’re basically just told that there’s a lot of algae that comes out of nowhere at times. There’s various other stuff that only the experts know about. We have little pump houses, but they don’t function as units that treat the water.
Nina: How can you tell if your water is contaminated? So what are the signs in terms of colour, taste…is it invisible?
Vernon: If you lived by the lake all your life, you’d see the gradual change in colour. Many years ago, as far as I can remember, you used to be able to see the bottom of the lake in some areas. That’s how clear it was. But since the population growth in terms of the cottagers, they more than likely dump their liquid waste into the lake somehow.
Nina: What are some of the steps community members have taken upon themselves in order to have usable water?
Vernon: Depending on the bottled water service, 100 per cent of the community members have taken it upon themselves. We’re told to boil the water, but I don’t think a lot of people do that. They’ll use it for showering and washing clothes, and stuff like that but, for the little things like cooking and coffee or whatever, they’ll use the bottled water.
Nina: Has there been anything significant that has been done lately to improve the ongoing water crisis?
Vernon: The only thing that’s happened over the last couple of years is that the department has re-opened the file, again, to see what kind of system we require and how much it’s going to cost. This will be their second go around. Their first study, there was a big argument between the First Nations and the department in Thunder Bay, because they didn’t want to service the south side of the community. They were going to service the rest of the community, and then that’s where we argued that that’s not right and that they need to service everybody.
Nina: Why do you think it’s taken so long for the government to fix the water crisis that’s going on at Shoal Lake?
Vernon: Well, we live in a very unique situation, where our land back in the early 1900’s was expropriated by Manitoba and Canada, for Winnipeg to get their drinking water from our lake. With that, the Trent canal disconnected us from the main land. The community members are more or less dependent on access through our neighbouring community, Shoal Lake 39.
Nina: What do you think are some of the legal failures that have contributed to this water crisis being unresolved for so many decades?
Vernon: I think it’s just that the department seems to think they know everything about First Nations and how they live, and what they need. For many years, we’ve said this is the kind of system we need to service everybody, and they come back and say to us “No, that’s not what you need. This is what you need.” The funny part about that is that we present them with a system, they say no, and then four to five years later they admit they made a mistake, and that the system we presented was actually the right system that they should’ve used. By that time they’ll tell us that they only have $4 million for our system, but back in the day the system we had designed was only $3000, and now it’s about $7 or $8 million. The systems we suggested 18 years ago, are about $20 million now.
Nina: I can only imagine how frustrating that must be, especially because you guys keep giving them the system that they need to give to you, and they’re just not taking it seriously enough.
Vernon: Yeah, that’s one of the biggest problems with headquarters in Toronto and Thunder Bay. They never do any community visits to see the kind of struggles we really have, in terms of how to access material. They seem to think we can deal with it, without a struggle, but it is a struggle.
Nina: The next question I want to ask then, is in terms of the community at Shoal Lake 40 getting a say and giving the government these plans for these systems and what not, how much weight do you think that really bears on the decision that they make? You had mentioned that they come back to you guys in a couple years and say “Hey, well this was the system that we actually did need for you guys.” But it seems like they don’t really take it too seriously in the beginning, when you guys do come to them with recommendations for a system.
Vernon: Our opinions over those years meant nothing. But I’ve seen over the last couple of years they’ve started to, more or less, accept some of the stuff that we’ve presented to them. 2010, me and the current Chief were asked to a meeting in Kenora by 2 bureaucrats from Thunder Bay. We thought they were going to give us good news about our plant, but little did we know they were going to slap us in the face and tell us that we aren’t getting one for another seven or eight years. We were kind of speechless. We didn’t know what to say and so two years ago, again they asked us to a meeting in Kenora, and I can’t recall the names of the two new guys that they sent, but we more or less told them not to mess around with us this time, and that if they want to do this, they do it until it’s done. And they assured us that they were going to put 100 per cent into the second attempt.
Nina: So how far along would you say that they are in terms of putting in that ‘100 per cent’?
Vernon: It’s slowly moving. I think, the people that were selected to do the second study, they’ve come up with a design, but they still haven’t done any community consultations yet. That still needs to be done. But it is moving slowly. I think one of the other biggest issues, which I said earlier, is that they have to depend on crossing a different nation to access our community. I think that was one of the biggest issues we had, because they were trying to charge us, the community, an arm and a leg to bring materials through their community. That was one of the reasons they stopped it, because of the high cost.
Nina: Where can listeners go for more information, and what can they do to help end this water crisis?
Vernon: The Shoal Lake 40 website and we belong with the Bimose Tribal Council in Kenora.