Anglicans join campaign to help Shoal Lake reserve

Many churches in Winnipeg have shown their public support for the Freedom Road project through their signs. Photo: Annalee Giesbrecht
Many churches in Winnipeg have shown their public support for the Freedom Road project through their signs. Photo: Annalee Giesbrecht
Published July 31, 2015

It has been an issue for almost a hundred years, but this summer Winnipeggers have decided that it is time for the Ojibwa/Ontario Saulteaux First Nation of Shoal Lake Band #40 to get its due, and Anglican voices have been some of the loudest advocating for change.

The small community, which straddles the border of Manitoba and Ontario and has an on-reserve population of 266, provides Winnipeg and other communities in southern Manitoba with water via an aqueduct, but in an irony that has not gone unnoticed by its residents, the reserve itself has been on a boil water advisory for 17 years.

Attempts to establish a water treatment facility have been frustrated by the very aqueduct that allows Winnipeg clean drinking water: the Shoal Lake Band was forced to relocate with the construction of the aqueduct in 1919, and were cut off from the mainland when a diversion canal turned the peninsula they had settled on into an island. They currently have access to the mainland only via barges in the summer and ice roads in the winter.

Plans were made earlier this year to build a bridge across the canal and a road connecting the community to the Trans-Canada Highway, 28 km to the north. But while the city of Winnipeg and the provincial government were willing to cover two-thirds of the estimated $30 million cost of the project, the federal government announced on June 25 that it would be willing to provide only $1 million toward a design study.

The decision, which was met with anguished dismay from members of Shoal Lake #40, has been widely denounced in the media, and in early July it inspired an episcopal letter from Bishop Donald Phillips of the diocese of Rupert’s Land, the ecclesiastical territory in which Winnipeg and Shoal Lake are located.

In the letter, Phillips was highly critical of the federal government, calling the decision “unthinkable” and suggesting that it “once again confirms the lack of integrity in working in partnership with the First Nations.”

The letter went on to ask Anglicans to make the issue “as public as possible,” and to “impress upon people the importance of their getting involved and taking action to register their concern.”

Parishes and individuals were encouraged to write to their representatives in Ottawa to express support for the project, which has come to be known as “Freedom Road,” and to make their views public on church signs. They were also encouraged to sign and share a petition started by Christian singer-songwriter Steve Bell, who attends saint benedict’s table, an Anglican community in downtown Winnipeg.

In an open letter to the prime minister’s office published last week, Bell drew attention to the “tsunami” of public support for Freedom Road, and listed the many public groups that have formed in support of the project, including multi-faith group 10 Days for Shoal Lake and Churches for Freedom Road, as well as Honour the Source, a crowd-funding campaign to raise the money needed to cover the federal government’s portion of the costs.

“The people whom you represent want our government to do what is right and fair,” Bell states in his letter. “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.”

When contacted about the impact that Anglican advocacy has had, Phillips said he felt that “the community at large has been responding very well,” but noted that some of the responses—namely the crowd-funding campaign—struck him as somewhat problematic.

“Where my heart and passion lies is in holding the federal government’s feet to the fire to pony up,” he said. “Now, I won’t discourage people from contributing to the cause…[but] I don’t want to let the federal government off the hook. It’s our money, our taxpayer money, and they need to be coming through with it.”

Both the federal Liberals and the federal NDP have pledged that, if they are elected in October, they will reverse the decision and provide federal support for the project.

Meanwhile, in Shoal Lake, construction of a bridge crossing the canal has begun; but as Cuyler Cotton, a policy analyst with the Shoal Lake Band, put it to the CBC, the bridge is a “bridge to nowhere.” The solution, said Cotton, “is to build a road to the west, and that is Freedom Road.”


  • André Forget

    André Forget was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2014 to 2017.

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