Drinking water

Winnipeg’s drinking water source of frustration for Indigenous community

TORONTO — About 100 million litres of fresh water flows west to the city of Winnipeg every day but the struggling Indigenous people who live on the shores of Shoal Lake say no benefits have ever flowed east to them.

Compensation is decades overdue, they say, and they’re now hoping favourable developments in their $500-million lawsuit against the city and the province of Ontario will tilt the odds their way.

Gerald Lewis, chief of the Anishinaabe community that lives on the sole source of Winnipeg’s drinking water, says it’s high time to negotiate compensation. The money, he says, would help with much needed housing, health care and economic opportunities.

“For the city, if they had no drinking water, where would they be at?” Lewis said. “They’re thriving economically over there with the resource that they’re taking from us, and here we are and we’re struggling to better our community.”

The roots of the dispute date to 1913, when the Ontario government authorized a growing and thirsty Winnipeg to take water from Shoal Lake, about 180 kilometres away.

While a small part of the lake is in Manitoba, most lies in Ontario amid the traditional territory of Iskatewizaagegan 39, also known as Shoal Lake 39, home to about 300 people with a similar number living off-reserve.

“Back in the day, we were never consulted,” Lewis said. “Ontario and Manitoba did what they did, basically bypassed us.”

In 1919, Winnipeg began siphoning water from the Manitoba edge of the lake — home to the separate Iskatewizaagegan 40 — via a specially constructed pipe, and has been doing so ever since. Indigenous efforts over the years to negotiate some kind of deal have gone nowhere.

“We never made an agreement with the city. We never signed no rights away with the city,” Lewis said. “It would be nice if they would come to the table and start discussing these issues but, in the past, the door was slammed.”

Iskatewizaagegan 39 finally began legal proceedings against Winnipeg and Ontario in 2019, based on the province’s original 1913 cabinet order, which calls for “full compensation” to all “private parties” that might be damaged by the city’s water taking.

After Ontario Superior Court ruled the Indigenous community qualified as a “private party” and could be entitled to redress, Iskatewizaagegan 39 sued, arguing it has suffered ecological, cultural, spiritual, and financial damages.

The water of Shoal Lake was, and remains, of immense importance to the people, the community says in its unproven statement of claim.

“We try our best to look after the water. We try keep it clean. We’re still continuing to look after this water for the best interests of the city of Winnipeg,” Lewis said. “It’s just something that they don’t see, that they don’t recognize.”

Ontario countered that it bore no responsibility but, in February, a judge threw out the province’s bid to have the claim against it struck without a hearing on the merits. Iskatewizaagegan 39, Justice Paul Perell ruled, should have the chance to prove the province failed to protect the community’s interests.

“Iskatewizaagegan No. 39’s culture is coextensive with Shoal Lake and the surrounding land,” Perell noted. “The transmission of Anishinaabe teachings, traditions and values to future generations takes place and continues to take place at Shoal Lake.”

The appeal period has just passed, paving the way for what could be a protracted lawsuit to continue. Ontario has yet to file a statement of defence.

For its part, Winnipeg denies having harmed the plaintiffs or “in any way interfered” with their lands or properties. If the Iskatewizaagegan have sustained damages, the city says in its legal filings, they were caused “by other parties, by forces of nature, or by other factors for which the city is not responsible.”

Neither the province nor city would comment given that the matter is before the courts.

One option quietly kicked about in the community is to somehow try to shut off the tap, the chief said. It’s not something anyone wants to discuss publicly.

“It is certainly an option that is open to the community to bar any further taking of the water,” said their lawyer, Julian Falconer. “It’s their territory.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

(Image from Facebook)
Some rural central Alberta students return to online learning

Grades 6 to 12 at Coronation School impacted

Instructor Brandt Trimble leads an outdoor spin class at RYDE RD. (Photo by SUSAN ZIELINSKI/Advocate staff)
Fitness facilities continue to adapt to COVID-19 restrictions

‘It’s really frustrating to be one of the targeted businesses’

Red Deer-Lacombe MP Blaine Calkins (Photo contributed)
Federal budget strangles job growth, says MP Blaine Calkins

‘It is most certainly not a balanced budget’

Kids at Lotsa’Tots West Day Care in Red Deer act out how a caterpillar moves with co-owner and instructor Shireen Sewcharran-Wiebe. Child care providers are hoping Alberta’s provincial government will help fund the national child care program announced this week. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).
Alberta day care providers hope Alberta will get onboard with national child care program

Some question whether the UCP’s ideology will stand in the way

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney shakes hands with Jason Nixon, minister of Environment and Parks after being sworn into office, in Edmonton on Tuesday April 30, 2019. Town council from the largest municipality in Nixon's constituency is concerned over the province's consultation plans for open-pit coal mining in the Rocky Mountains. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Town of Rocky Mountain House wants better coal consultation

ROCKY MOUNTAIN HOUSE, Alta. — Town council from the largest municipality in… Continue reading

A vial of the Medicago vaccine sits on a surface. CARe Clinic, located in Red Deer, has been selected to participate in the third phase of vaccine study. (Photo courtesy www.medicago.com)
Red Deer clinical research centre participating in plant-based COVID-19 vaccine trial

A Red Deer research centre has been selected to participate in the… Continue reading

A man walks into a Cargill meat processing factory. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Site of COVID outbreak last year: Vaccination clinic at Alberta meat plant postponed

HIGH RIVER, Alta. — A COVID-19 vaccination clinic for thousands of workers… Continue reading

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks at a television screen as he listens to United States President Joe Biden deliver a statement during a virtual joint statement following a virtual meeting in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
‘We hope to help a little more’: Biden says he spoke to Trudeau about more vaccines

WASHINGTON — Canada can look forward to an unexpected shot in the… Continue reading

The Mission Correctional Institution in Mission, B.C. is pictured Tuesday, April 14, 2020. A new federal study found that people released from prison were much more likely than the general population to have trouble finding gainful employment, even over a decade after returning to society. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Ease employment hurdles for former prison inmates, federal study urges

OTTAWA — A new federal study found that people released from prison… Continue reading

Governor of the Bank of Canada Tiff Macklem holds a press conference at the Bank Of Canada in Ottawa on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Bank of Canada keeps rate on hold, sees brighter economic outlook

OTTAWA — The Bank of Canada is keeping its key interest rate… Continue reading

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a technical briefing on the COVID pandemic in Canada, Friday, January 15, 2021 in Ottawa. Tam says new information on COVID-19 and variants prompted the National Advisory Committee on Immunization to suddenly cancel its planned update on who should get the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
AstraZeneca advice from national panel delayed by new data on COVID-19 and variants

OTTAWA — Canada’s chief public health officer says new information on COVID-19… Continue reading

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks at a television screen as he listens to United States President Joe Biden deliver a statement during a virtual joint statement following a virtual meeting in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau pressured to adopt tougher emissions target for Biden climate summit

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is under pressure to step up… Continue reading

Passengers from Air India flight 187 from New Delhi wait for their transportation to quarantine after arriving at Pearson Airport in Toronto on Wednesday, April 21, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
ICU pressures mount as COVID fells younger people; Ottawa mulls India travel ban

TORONTO — Amid mounting pressures on critical care in hospitals and concerns… Continue reading

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland delivers the federal budget in the House of Commons as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on in Ottawa on Monday April 19, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Three confidence votes to determine fate of minority Liberal government

OTTAWA — A pair of proposed changes to the federal budget put… Continue reading

Most Read