What I really want for Christmas is an access road and a water treatment plant and a school
You-know-who with fund-raising t-shirt
This started off as a review of three important books that I thought would be good gifts for activists – then it morphed into a Christmas wish list from all of us to all of us.
These are the books:
-Boiling Point – Government Neglect, Corporate Abuse, and Canada’s Water Crisis by Maude Barlow (2016 – paperback, 294 pp. ECW Press $19.95)
-Seven Fallen Feathers – Racism, Deaths and Hard Truths in a Northern City by Tanya Talaga (2017 – paperback, 329 pp. House of Anansi Press $22.95).
-Fighting Dirty – How a Small Community took on Big Trash by Poh-Gek Forkert (2017 – paperback, 188 pp., $21.70 from Between the Lines).
Shoal Lake #40 First Nation is mentioned as a scandalous situation in two of the books, Barlow’s and Talaga’s, though the story of disregard for indigenous land and people features also in Forkert’s account. It’s a thread that runs through most environmental stories.
The Shoal Lake community has lived under a Drinking Water Advisory for 20 years, longer than all but one other First Nation, Barlow writes. A century ago, their land was expropriated and a 140-km aqueduct was built to take the clean water of Shoal Lake to the city of Winnipeg. A dam was built to divert the boggy water of Falcon Lake away from the aqueduct – that would be the water for the reserve, which was also cut off from the mainland with only a barge to haul people, food, cars, medicines and water back and forth.
Barlow, the indomitable chair of the Council of Canadians, describes the awful conditions the residents have to live with and notes that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Shoal Lake six months after his government’s election and promised to do the right thing.
So I decided to phone Shoal Lake #40 to see what has happened. I talked to Cuyler Cotton, who does the media relations. The key element in getting clean water is building a water treatment plant, he said, and to make that possible another key element is construction of the ‘Freedom Road,’ a 24-km stretch that would reconnect the community to the mainland and also to the Trans-Canada Highway.
The federal government is funding half of the cost of the project, the remainder to be shared between the city of Winnipeg and the Manitoba government. Phase 1, the 8-km portion that’s on reserve land, was 100% funded by the feds and was completed in September. Construction is to start on the remaining 16 km in January. The water treatment plant is being planned.
These are hopeful signs, I suggest.
Cuyler doesn’t believe in hopeful signs.
“You’re talking to someone who’s been through a lot of cycles,” he said. Over the years, there have been three water treatment plants designed, with funding in place, and construction actually began on one. “To ask, is this a hopeful sign, is actually quite cruel,” he said. Action on the ground is needed: adequate infrastructure that works and is operationally funded. They’ll believe it when they see it.
What’s the price of the treatment plant? I ask. “That’s the wrong question,” he said. The question is, “what is the price of equality in Canada?” He added that the government is already getting “sticker shock” about the price, and quibbling about the scope of the water treatment project, and suggesting that not all of the homes need to be hooked up. “It’s expensive to run piping in the Cambrian Shield.”
We talk further and I tell him that there are people in Canada who care about what’s happening to indigenous people. “The people in Canada who care need to make damn sure that the people who represent them do the right thing,” Cuyler said. “We need to demand more of ourselves and our country.”
These three books will help you on your journey of demanding more. They are written with authority and passion.
Forkert tells an engrossing tale of the decades-long battle to stop the world’s largest waste company from massively expanding the Richmond Landfill Site west of Napanee.
It started in 1954 when a farmer from England, down on his luck, started a dump. Like Topsy, it grew. And then, when it was given a certificate of approval to accept garbage from all over Ontario, it was bought by Tricil Ltd., which morphed into Laidlaw Waste Systems, which became Canadian Waste Services, finally changing its name to Waste Management of Canada Corp. An expansion to 237 acres with 275,000 tonnes a year was proposed in 1998
Over the years a mountain of garbage had formed. The fact that it was on totally unsuitable land – fractured limestone – did not deter the waste company’s ambition nor the environment ministry’s support. Contaminants were found in local wells. Rats infested the area, along with flies, raccoons, gulls and other scavengers. Trucks added dust, diesel fumes and noise. The mountain stank so badly neighbours could not stay outside. Trees died. Fish and amphibians disappeared from streams. Livestock owners and horse and dog breeders were left broken-hearted at the aborted and deformed animals that were born.
After years of rallies and protests and deputations and hearings and fundraising and legal face-offs, the Richmond Hill Landfill finally closed in 2011. But then Waste Management came up with a plan – for another landfill site, right beside the old one! Still on fractured limestone! And a leachate plume still has to be dealt with. The concerned citizen can never rest.
We in Huronia can thank Barlow, among many others, for the fact that south Tiny and north Springwater townships are not contending with the ills that landfill sites visit on their neighbours. Turn straight to page 158 of Boiling Point to learn how the Anishinaabe Kweag of Beausoleil First Nation and the residents of Simcoe County rose to defend their water against a dump site. The County chose land that covers an aquifer which has been found to have the cleanest water ever tested as the location for the project. The residents ensured that the Site 41 certificate of approval was withdrawn, the land was rezoned agricultural and sold to a farmer – all in an effort to make sure that the project would not resurface. But Site 41 is a bright point of victory in Barlow’s overwhelmingly sad saga of water mistreatment across our country.
Talaga’s account is especially distressing because children are the target. The youth of the North are channelled to Thunder Bay because of the lack of education in their home communities. Seven teenagers died in suspicious circumstances from 2000 to 2011. The bodies of five were found in local rivers – three in the McIntyre, two in the Kaministiquia.
Most disturbing is the role of the Thunder Bay Police – slow to react to a report of a missing indigenous child – often search parties from home communities hundreds of kilometres away were the ones to find key evidence – and quick to come to the conclusion that no foul play was involved.
At the root of what happened to these teens, adrift and fearful in an alien and racist environment, is the federal government’s failure to adequately fund education for First Nations kids. In 1996 under Jean Chretien, funding increases for on-reserve schools were capped at 2 per cent, which has not kept pace with inflation nor begun to allow for a population increase of 29 per cent. From 1996 to 2006, provincial education funding increased annually by 3.8 per cent. In 2015 Trudeau promised to end the cap. That has not happened. Students and teachers are set up to fail in schools that lack libraries, technology, gymnasiums and often are not fit for human occupation.
These are the seven whose deaths were the subject of a 2015-16 inquest in Thunder Bay: Jethro Anderson, 15, of Kasabonika Lake (2000); Curran Strang, 18, of Pikangikum (2005); Paul Panacheese, 21, of Mishkeegogamang (2006); Robyn Harper, 18, of Keewaywin (2007); Reggie Bushie, 15, Poplar Hill (2007); Kyle Morrisseau, 15 of Keewaywin (2009); Jordan Wabasse, 15, of Webequie (2011). The inquest jury found four deaths to be undetermined, three to be accidental.
Two more teenagers’ bodies were found in Thunder Bay waterways in May of this year: those of Tammy Keeash, 17, from North Caribou Lake, and Josiah Begg, 14, from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug.
It is intolerable.
Let’s tell our representatives in Ottawa what we want for Christmas: access roads, water treatment plants and schools, where they are needed, as soon as possible. We owe them to ourselves.