Water and the Infrastructure of Colonialism

Map - Shoal Lake No. 40

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The lack of drinkable water on reserves has become emblematic of the failure of Canadian modernity to deliver even the most basic services for Indigenous peoples, and particularly First Nations on reserves. One of the 2015 election promises made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government was to end drinking water advisories on reserves. But half way into the mandate, this goal seems impossibly far away. As of July 2017, there were at least 172 drinking water advisories in 121 First Nations, which is perhaps more, perhaps around the same, and certainly not less than in 2015.[1]

The apparent intractability of these figures speaks to enduring and systemic inequalities, ones built gradually over a century and a half of modern Canadian colonialism. The vexed relationship between infrastructure, colonialism, and drinking water is the subject of my short 2016 book, Aqueduct: Colonialism, Resources, and the Histories We Remember (Winnipeg, ARP, 2016). Aqueduct traces the history of Winnipeg’s municipal water system, showing how the Annishinaabeg community of Shoal Lake 40 was dispossessed in the interests of securing the ambitious settler city of Winnipeg’s efforts to secure for themselves an ample supply of good water.

The Winnipeg or Shoal Lake Aqueduct connects the city of Winnipeg to Shoal Lake, about 135 kilometers to the east, and bordering the provinces of Manitoba and Ontario. Aqueduct construction began in 1913, continued during the labour shortages and exigencies of the Great War, and was completed as the Winnipeg General Strike occurred in 1919.   The Aqueduct was an ambitious project and an expensive one, coming in at about 17 million dollars and employing up to 2000 men at one time.

Sketch map of the Aqueduct’s proposed route, 1913. City of Winnipeg Archives, A1381, File 58.

The Aqueduct was and remains a monument to colonial modernity. Designed by clever men with letters after their name, many of them American, the Aqueduct brought good drinking water to Winnipeg, a city that would otherwise lack it, at least in the volume that ambitious industrialists and real estate speculators and in the quality that concerned public health advocates wanted. With the Aqueduct came more infrastructure between Winnipeg and Shoal Lake, including a railroad, hydroelectric power, a telegraph wire, a self-titled “colonization scheme,” and, for a brief time, an experimental farm and a prison along the Birch River.

 “Plan of Reserve No. 40,” Shoal Lake, December 1920, Library and Archives Canada, Mikan 3719724.
“Plan of Reserve No. 40,” Shoal Lake, December 1920, Library and Archives Canada, Mikan 3719724.

The Aqueduct gave to Winnipeg and it took from Indigenous communities, particularly Shoal Lake 40.  Winnipeg’s Aqueduct was built, quite literally, on a suite of land and resource losses for the First Nation. Most notable was the roughly 3,000 acres of Shoal Lake 40 reserve land that were taken in the summer of 1914 under the particularly heavy-handed section 46 of the Indian Act, which allowed reserve land to be unilaterally expropriated in the interests of so-called ‘public works,’ ones that invariably served a settler rather than an Indigenous public. But there were other losses as well, including to the First Nations’ rights to gravel and sand on the reserve and to another parcel of land in 1919.

Again and again, Ottawa’s Department of Indian Affairs put the interests of the settler city over those of the First Nation. The result was a reserve that was, and remains, cut in three, its main settlement an artificial island. A little more than a century after their loss of land, Shoal Lake 40 reserve sits nearby the TransCanada highway and the toney cottages of Falcon Beach and West Hawk.  Shoal Lake 40 has been under a boil water advisory for a solid two decades. The First Nation has a suite of impaired or non-existent infrastructure, most notably the lack of secure all-year access that would allow for the building and maintenance of a water treatment plant and, beyond that, make community life sustainable.

The kind of yawning gaps in what most Canadians would define as essential services that exist between communities like Shoal Lake 40 and Winnipeg were built over the last century and a half, and they exist alongside the environmental crises that came to Treaty 3 in the twentieth century. Historian Brittany Luby shows how hydroelectric development and concomitant rising levels of methylmercury “jeopardized Anishinabek women’s access to local resources” over the course of the twentieth century.[2] Leanne Leddy recently explains how even in the postwar period, “when status Indians could vote in federal elections and the power of the Indian agents slowly eroded” colonial processes still “facilitated land encroachments and environmental devastation.”[3]

Photo of author’s kid and bottled water at Shoal Lake 40, August 2016.

Addressing seemingly modest and straightforward issues, including access to decent drinking water, is hard, maybe impossible, when the roads, the drainage, the sewers, and the clean ups that have made settler communities safer, healthier, and more liveable have not occurred, and where the environment costs of so-called development have been steep and often unchecked. Recent research has found that problems with the distribution system mean that a Manitoba First Nation with a working water treatment facility has poor drinking water.[4]  The persistent gap between the infrastructure that First Nations people living on reserve and people living in Canadian cities and towns are the result of hundreds of decisions, ones that have cumulatively resourced settler communities and undermined Indigenous ones.

The history of twentieth and twenty-first century Winnipeg is impossible without Shoal Lake water. We still drink it, and it is still good: clear, tasty, plentiful, and cheap. The story of Winnipeg and the Shoal Lake aqueduct is a story of the environment remade to make settler communities viable and sustainable. This cannot be disaggregated from the history of settler colonialism, and the continued resourcing of settler communities at the expense, sometimes painfully direct expense, of Indigenous ones. Colonialism is literally in our pipes, and promises cannot easily redirect that.

[1] This is from Hilary Beaumont and Martha Troian, “Water Week: A Look at Canada’s Indigenous Water Crisis,” https://news.vice.com/story/water-week-a-look-at-canadas-indigenous-water-crisis, accessed 6 September 2017, and excludes those communities that fall within the Saskatoon Tribal Council.

[2] Brittany Luby, “From Milk-Medicine to Public (Re)Education Programs: An Examination of Anishinabek Mothers Responses to Hydroelectric Flooding in the Treaty #3 District, 1900-1975,” Canadian Bulletin for Medical History, 32, no. 2 (2015): 363-89.

[3] “Lianne C. Leddy, “Intersections of Indigenous and Environmental History in Canada,” Canadian Historical Review, 98:1 (March 2017) 92.

[4] Ayush Kumar and Annemieke Farenhost, “Water Distribution Systems Failing,” Winnipeg Free Press, 15 June 2016, accessed at https://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/analysis/water-distribution-systems-failing-383069121.html, 22 October 2017.


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