Human rights museum needs to act on First Nations right to water


Originally published by CBC on July 10, 2014. Read the original here.

daryl-redskyDaryl Redsky can still remember the night as a boy when he lost his mother and sister. He was awakened in the middle of the night by a fire in his childhood home on the Shoal Lake #40 First Nation.

“I got my brother up,” Redsky recalled at a meeting in his community yesterday. “We crawled beneath the smoke. I couldn’t save my mother, I couldn’t save my sister.”

The images of the blaze still haunt Redsky decades later.

“What really hurts is the image of my little sister banging on the window just as close as you are,” he said, gesturing to a spot no more than 12 feet away. “She was yelling ‘help me’ and I couldn’t do anything. That image is burned in my mind.”

Ironically, the house fire happened just a stone’s throw from Shoal Lake. Lacking a fire truck or fire hose at the time, or a road to another community with such infrastructure, community members were helpless to do anything but watch as the home was engulfed in flames. Today, Redsky is a Fire Chief in the community.

The ironies abound here in Shoal Lake, the body of water straddling the Manitoba and Ontario border which supplies the drinking water to Winnipeg, some 150 kilometres to the west. On the Winnipeg side of the aqueduct water comes out clean and drinkable, on this side in the local First Nation, there is a boil water advisory.

That’s right, the community which supplies fresh water for Manitoba’s biggest city relies on bottled water.

A further paradox is that this water, a life giver to the local Anishinaabe people who fished and riced on it for generations, has now become a mortal danger to them as well. In 1913 a canal dug to supply Winnipeg’s water turned this community into what locals call a “man made island.”

Cut off from travel by land, people here rely on barge, boat and winter road to travel to the outside world. This in turn has resulted in many drownings over the years, in addition to the infrastructure deficit that contributed to tragedies like the one that visited Daryl Redsky’s family.

Redsky told his story for the first time at a community gathering called The Price of Water, in Shoal Lake #40 (there is also a Shoal Lake #39 First Nation which has ongoing water issues with Winnipeg) which was attended by officials from the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, as well as the Province of Manitoba and cities of Kenora and Winnipeg.

The event was organized by the brother Daryl helped to pull out of the burning house so many years ago, Chief Erwin Redsky.

Chief Redksy has continued a fight that is now over 100 years old. His community’s demand is simple, to build Freedom Road. This all-season road would cut down on the deaths from lake crossings, increase the possibility of economic development and make building a new water treatment facility affordable. They have secured commitments from Winnipeg and the Province towards building Freedom Road, but have been unable to secure such a pledge from the Federal government. The Feds were conspicuously absent from the meeting yesterday.

In an email, sent July 10, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs office staff said, “We remain committed to working with the First Nation to support strong and healthy communities,” and point out they have pledged $1 million towards the design of Freedom Road. A letter dated January 12, 2014 from the Aboriginal Affairs minister to Ontario Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Glen Murray said the federal government could not fund construction at this time citing “overwhelming funding pressures.”

Chief Redsky has turned his attention to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights as a means to share his community’s story. He and others in the community objected to a Healing Waters exhibit in the museum using water taken from their community without acknowledging the human toll its extraction has taken on them.

Fed up, the Chief called the Museum “a shrine to Canadian hypocrisy.”

The museum is now listening. A half dozen officials from the new facility were on hand. They toured the First Nation and went to the spot on the west side of the reserve where the current Freedom Road abruptly stops and turns into muskeg. They also listened to more than a dozen community members (there were about 100 people in attendance) share powerful stories, many moved by to tears, about loved ones lost. And then there were the close calls.

Linda Redsky spoke about plunging through the ice with her husband during a spring thaw years ago.

“I looked up and I could see the ice,” she recounted. “I could see the stars.”

Hearing her husband’s voice on the surface not far away, she swam to him. He reached in and pulled her out. She began to stand.

“He said ‘don’t get up!’ He said ‘we’re going to crawl to the landing.’ Our hair was frozen. Our clothes were frozen. Then we still had a 10-15 minute walk to get home.”

Following the sharing circle, Museum officials and others were treated to a pickerel fish fry and were given the chance to share their observations of the day.

The Museum asserts that clean water is a human right and acknowledges that they will examine the challenges many First Nations have exercising that right generally, but make no mention of exploring the Shoal Lake issue specifically. In a statement, Director of Communications Angela Cassie says “as a Museum, we cannot play the role of advocate and activist, or take a position in disputes, but we can work to build awareness and understanding as part of our educational mandate.”

The museum would do well to share some of what they heard yesterday with the larger world though. Their use of Shoal Lake water internally and location in a city that relies on it means that they are inextricably linked to the First Nation and its resource.

Daryl Redsky spoke to these points in the meeting.What is more, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is positioning itself as a place to celebrate human rights both domestically and internationally. Standing by silently as one group of people is deprived of life and equal opportunity is not consistent with that message.

“To me it’s unfair to see everything that’s been built over the past hundred years… in the city that uses our water,” he said, addressing the CMHR officials directly. “Everything in that city has our people’s blood in it. Our DNA is in the bricks and mortar.”
He paused for a second before continuing.

“We know you’re not in a position to make effective change for us, but we want your support.”

Perhaps by lending that support, the Museum can help marshal an effort from those who can make an effective change for Shoal Lake #40.

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