I was brought up to be a proud Canadian. It’s safe to assume most of us were. We’re polite, caring, neighbourly citizens and our reputation around the world is typically respected.
I didn’t feel like a proud Canadian this week. I’m not sure I’ll ever regain that pride.
It’s difficult to be proud of allowing third world conditions just a short drive away from the comfort of our ‘civilized’ society.
It’s difficult to be proud of a history of neglect, abuse, ignorance, and shame.
It’s difficult to be proud to live in a country that’s willing to look in the other direction as human beings are literally living in their own filth and being sent to early graves because of it.
This isn’t happening in some sort of under-developed country that we see on infomercials and highlighted in benefit concerts. This is not happening due to a natural disaster or a disease or plague or civil unrest or bombings or war.
This is Shoal Lake 40 First Nation.
I had the opportunity to attend a tour of Shoal Lake 40 and see first-hand how the residents are living. Shoal Lake 40 is a reserve on the Manitoba/Ontario border that has been under a boil-water advisory for 18 years, yet ironically is located at the source of where Winnipeg extracts its clean water from, and has for more than a century.
You may have heard of Freedom Road, a project set to improve Shoal Lake 40’s access to the rest of the world. A project promised by the Federal government that is set to be completed next year. The residents of Shoal Lake 40 are cautiously optimistic, despite years of negativity that would have bred deep-seeded pessimism in a lesser people.
They welcomed us, an eclectic group of Winnipeggers from across the spectrum. Dave Angus, President and CEO of The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce hosted the trip, organized by the Chamber’s Wendy Stephenson. Eileen Clarke, Manitoba’s Minister of Indigenous and Municipal Relations and her press secretary Amy McGuinness attended as well. We had a lawyer, an architect, an intern, an artist, a CEO, a PhD student, and me.
We visited their Canadian Museum for Human Rights Violations. We toured their youth centre / water storage facility. (The old bottled water storage facility’s floor caved in due to the weight of hundreds of 45 lb water jugs). We visited their above-ground sewage dump and their makeshift garbage dump down the road.
They told us stories of sewage spilling into their basements and being forced to scoop out raw human waste with their bare hands. They told us stories of their children and grandchildren leaving at the age of 13 or 14 because there is no high school they’re able to attend.
And they told us stories of how the water they use to bathe their children can cause rashes and make elders sick. Meanwhile clean water situated 2 minutes away from them is safely piped into Winnipeg for our benefit. For our consumption.
This is Canada in 2016. This is the Canada we are all supposed to be proud of. This is Canada’s legacy.
We are only as well-off as the least well-off among us.
Human rights are being fundamentally violated in our back yard and we can’t bury our heads in the sand anymore. This is on us.
So, when we commemorate Canada Day this week, perhaps we should all pause and reflect on what it means to be proud of our country and of being Canadian.
If we want to be proud of who we are and where we come from, justice for Shoal Lake 40 is paramount.