A cross-border watchdog has written a letter to the Canadian and U.S. governments highlighting the concerns of First Nations adjoining northwestern Ontario's Shoal Lake — the area that was flooded and cut off from the mainland so that Winnipeg could source its drinking water. 

The International Joint Commission, which oversees lake and river issues in the U.S. and Canada, said in its letter that four commissioners recently met with people from Shoal Lake First Nation No. 40 and Iskatewizaagegan Independent First Nation No. 39.

They were given a tour of the area in August.

The letter says the commission has received "numerous" complaints about "uncompensated harm done to the First Nation's members and lands due to the water diversion from Shoal Lake by the City of Winnipeg."

The complaints relate to a commission order in 1914 that said Winnipeg could divert the water if "full compensation would be made to all private parties whose lands or properties were taken, injuriously affected, or in any way interfered with by the Shoal Lake diversion."

Permanent boil-water advisory

Shoal Lake No. 40 was flooded and cut off from the mainland, creating an artificial island, and has remained that way for a century. 

"We were told that the City of Winnipeg’s removal of a secure land connection to First Nation No. 40 has directly led to the deaths of nine First Nation members who fell through the ice during winter months when crossing the canal by boat is not possible," said the letter, which was signed by Gordon Walker and Lana Pollack.

"We also were concerned to hear that, in spite of being in close proximity to the City of Winnipeg’s diversion structure and its chlorination capabilities, the First Nation itself has been under a boil-water advisory for the last 18 years."

The letter also notes that the original order said Winnipeg would use the water for itself only, which would bar it from selling water to outlying communities. The commission raised those concerns in 2013.

Erwin Redsky, chief of Shoal Lake No. 40, said in a separate statement that the commission's letter is "refreshing."  

"We welcome international oversight because, despite their fine words, Canadians have proven incapable of policing themselves," Redsky said. "We look forward to the IJC’s process of accountability.”