Shoal Lake 40 and Winnipeg's drinking water: What's at stake?

Winnipeg has been sipping at Shoal Lake water for nearly a century. The band wants a road in return.
The Shoal Lake 40 First Nation straddles the Manitoba-Ontario border. (CBC)

The City of Winnipeg has been using its aqueduct like a straw to draw fresh water from Shoal Lake for nearly a century, but the First Nation impacted by the construction of the waterway wants a year-round road in return.

Construction on the aqueduct began after then-mayor Thomas R. Deacon won a 1913 landslide victory, promising a safe supply of fresh water for Winnipeg. The 135-kilometre aqueduct was completed in 1919 at a cost of $17 million.

In 1914 the International Joint Commission to Canada and the United States, which oversees lake and river issues in the two countries, 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."

Construction of the aqueduct and a nearby water channel resulted in Shoal Lake No. 40 being flooded and cut off from the mainland, creating an artificial island. The First Nation has remained that way for nearly a century.

In 1989, the City of Winnipeg, the Province of Manitoba and Shoal Lake 40 signed a tripartite "environmental management agreement."

Shoal Lake 40 was responsible for protecting water quality as long as the city and the province would support the First Nation in creating economic development opportunities. The federal government signed a parallel agreement in 1990.

First Nation's concerns highlighted

The International Joint Commission wrote a letter in November 2014 to Canadian and U.S. governments highlighting the concerns of First Nations adjoining northwestern Ontario's Shoal Lake.

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."

"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.

"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."

— Gordon Walker and Lana Pollack; International Joint Commission to Canada and the United States

A lack of road access has made a water treatment plant costly. Shoal Lake has been without potable tap water for more than a decade. The First Nation relies on bottled water shipped in for residents.

Recently, the City of Winnipeg participated in a sod-turning ceremony for the construction of a new permanent bridge over the Falcon River Diversion Canal. The work is being funded by the city.

The man-made waterway was constructed approximately 100 years ago to facilitate the aqueduct, which still provides drinking water to Winnipeg. The canal's construction effectively cut off access to a section of the First Nation, forcing residents to cross the water on a regular basis.

The Province of Manitoba and the City of Winnipeg have each committed to pay one-third each of a $30-million all-weather road to Shoal Lake 40.

So far, the federal government has only officially committed to paying $1 million toward a survey in advance of the road construction.

A Conservative campaign manager says that $1 million is a "commitment in principle" to help build the road.