A Wrench in the Medicine Wheel: The Price of Stolen Water for Indigenous Cultural Continuity

By Anna Huard*

  • Ferry Landing. Adaawe wigamig means “store” in Ojibway (Photo credit: Anna Huard)
  • Water bottle storage and recycling facility (Photo credit: Anna Huard)
  • MCHRV’s document archive (Photo credit: Lauren Bosc)
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  • Provisional garbage dump (Photo credit: Lauren Bosc)
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As both a First Nations woman from Manitoba and a graduate student in the Masters of Development Practice (MDP) Indigenous Development Program at the University of Winnipeg, I am passionate about Indigenous ways of life1. I lost my father (an Ojibway man) at a young age, which put a serious fracture in the way I have been able to understand Anishinaabe perspectives. Now I am working harder than ever to regain my Indigenous identity, seeking methods to secure a connection to my cultural roots and practices. The thought that I could have been fluent in Ojibway if my father was still around creates a sense of defeat in me. If Indigenous cultures were recognized as something of value, we would not have to struggle so hard to uphold the perspectives that our ancestors knew so well from time immemorial.

Indigenous people face severe negative cultural and spiritual consequences when there is a fracture in the continuity of their daily experience due to externally imposed circumstances, such as being forced to relocate from their traditional and sacred lands. For example, in 1919 the development of a 100km aqueduct to transport drinking water from Shoal Lake 40 First Nation (SL40) to the City of Winnipeg left residents of a once flourishing and prosperous tract of land constrained to an island and subject to the adverse effects of this so-called “engineering feat”—a circumstance that remains in place today. While the physical separation from the rest of Canada has caused the community to feel isolated, the development has played a major role in the community’s social and political confinement. The aqueduct itself has had a variety of impacts on the water and its ecology, as well as affecting the quality of life for Shoal Lake 40 First Nations’ community members. One negative impact, with both environmental and economical repercussions, includes the artificial fluctuations of water levels in Shoal Lake, affecting fishing and wild rice harvesting as traditional means of sustenance2. Lack of access to potable water has also left this community under a boil water advisory continuously since February 1997. Simply put: the City of Winnipeg continues to benefit from the natural resources of SL40 at the cost of this Indigenous community’s cultural, ecological, and social well-being.

“Resource management” is how SL40’s crisis is typically framed, with lesser attention to cultural continuity—an issue that holds little weight in Western contexts. If it isn’t disempowering enough that the aqueduct was constructed on traditional burial grounds (the remains of their people’s ancestors had been excavated), the people had to relocate to a different part of the reserve—the island to which they are now constricted. The Quote from Blogcommunity has expressed concern over their decreasing population since SL40 has been in such conflict. This is the wrench in the Medicine Wheel: if there is no one left to continue their cultural practices due to colonial expansion, how is a community expected to celebrate, maintain, or even preserve their heritage? No water leads to people leaving to find water, which leads to migration, which leads to the disruption of cultural continuity.


Many community members are leaving their traditional lands to find a secure standard of living, causing a fracture in the way the Elder community may pass along their knowledge to their youth. As such, it is now urgent to create initiatives that secure cultural practices and traditions. This urgency is highlighted in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls for Action, where Recommendation 61 emphasizes the need for permanent funding towards protecting Indigenous culture3. Rebuilding cultural identity begins with solidifying the relationship between humanity and land; therefore, it is essential to reestablish the way we perceive the relationship between environment and property. Instead of seeing our natural resources as no more than the means to economic growth, Indigenous and settler communities must acknowledge that the fundamental basis of both Indigenous rights and traditional knowledge lies in the land, Mother Earth. Once robbed of the land, Indigenous cultures become extremely vulnerable to being painted over with Eurocentric ideologies.

As a means of drawing attention to the consistent (and intentional) violation of their community’s rights, SL40 established the Museum of Canadian Human Rights Violations (MCHRV), ironically mirroring the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) recently opened in Winnipeg. The MCHRV invites visitors on a tour of the community, which makes Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 2.22.42 PMvisible the effects of decades of economic, social, political, and cultural assault and neglect. The tour also includes a chronological display of artifacts representing the systematic wrongs the community has endured, as well as evidence of the community’s ongoing attempts to work with different levels of government to mitigate these issues.

I was fortunate enough to visit the MCHRV with my research group last summer, with the hope of delving deeper into the immediate perspectives of community members. The museum tour was a full-day affair, starting from boarding the Amik (a ferry that got us to and from the island of SL40 from the mainland) to seeing the historical documentation of the systematic failures of rights. After we finished the stew and bannock provided to us, we took a tour of the community. We drove past the community’s current waste disposal area—an open dump where they must pile their garbage since a waste management facility cannot be developed without a road to connect the community to the mainland. Next we arrived at the dyke that was put in place near the aqueduct in order to separate the tea-coloured water from the clean lake water, diverting the former toward the SL40 community while the City of Winnipeg benefits from the latter. I was extremely disheartened at the obvious display of whose rights weigh more than others’ in the face of economic development.

The MCHRV is a “living museum” in that it demonstrates the community’s current vulnerabilities (such as health concerns due to lack of sanitation options, and the loss of their young community members to urban areas). A poster on display by Hazel, a 7-year-old member of SL40 with Spina Bifida who has to leave her community in order to get appropriate health care, struck me in particular. At the same time, however, the museum shows the community’s resilience, through protests and letters, as it pushes towards the building of an all-season access road out of the community, known as “Freedom Road.” At the very least, building a road would eventually ensure that people like Hazel would not have to leave her traditional land for appropriate care.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier describes in her book The Right to Be Cold how Indigenous peoples are extensions of the land—we came from a once prosperous place4. This means that we are not innately vulnerable—instead, as the MCHRV demonstrates, we are resilient in many situations; our impoverishment is the result of settler colonial development. The community of SL40 First Nation has worked together to empower themselves against such development, which has come at a high cost to their everyday lives. They are building their road. They are done waiting for all three levels of government (municipal, provincial, federal) to come through on an overdue promise to build Freedom Road. Building Freedom Road has the potential not only to improve physical and economic access for the community, but also to restore the prospect of cultural continuity. Let the medicine wheel spin.

*Anna Huard is a graduate student at the University of Winnipeg in the Masters of Development Practice program, with a focus on Indigenous Development. She was born and raised in Winnipeg. Her family is from Couchiching First Nation. She studies language and cultural revitalization, as well as policy analysis toward reintegrating traditional perspectives into contemporary discourses. She works as an RA with Dr. Angela Failler on a project involving Shoal Lake 40 First Nation’s Museum of Canadian Human Rights Violations. She is also on her first field placement at the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.



1 First edition of this article was published on the Active History website, and then edited for the Thinking through the Museum website.

Shoal Lake Watershed Working Group (2001a). Shoal Lake Watershed Management Plan. Retrieved from http://www.gov.mb.ca/conservation/ShoalLakeWMP/SLWMP.pdf

3 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Retrieved from http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.php?p=890

Watt-Cloutier, S. (2015). The Right to Be Cold. Toronto: Allen Lane.


“Thinking through the Canadian Museum for Human Rights”

CMHR "Garden of Contemplation"

The CMHR’s “Garden of Contemplation.” “The First Nations sacred relationship to water is honored, as a place of healing and solace amidst reflections of earth and sky” (www.predock.com/CMHR/CMHR.html). Photograph: Erica Lehrer.

Dr. Erica Lehrer has published an unflinching and generative review of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in volume 67, issue 4 of American Quarterly, titled” Thinking through the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.”

To access the full article, click here. Here is a brief excerpt of the content.

“‘This ice you’re standing on, this is what you’ll be drinking down in Winnipeg next spring. For you, this is life. For people here, it can be death.’ I am shivering along with a dozen Winnipeg-based academics and students listening to Cuyler Cotton, a policy analyst and media relations specialist, in the community of Shoal Lake No. 40 on a mid-January day, looking out across the frozen lake that separates the local band of Ojibway First Nations, inhabitants of Shoal Lake, from access to the nearest highway. One hundred years ago the Canadian government sold this portion of First Nation terrain to the city of Winnipeg to build an aqueduct to supply the urban residents with clean water. As collateral damage, the Shoal Lake No. 40 peninsula was sliced into an island. This intrusion into the landscape left the local people to drink boiled or bottled water and traverse the lake by boat or winter road—treacherous in late fall and early spring with the insufficiently frozen surface—and living amid their own trash and sewage, which leaches into their water supply. Continue reading


Inaugural Team Meeting

Photo of PDG Team

Research Team at the CMHR, from L to R: Erica Lehrer, Angela Failler, Heather Igloliorte, and Monica Patterson

From August 9-12, 2015, the PDG team met in Winnipeg, Manitoba to launch “Thinking Through the Museum: Difficult Knowledge in Public.” The four day meeting involved collaborators and research assistants, and included a field trip to Shoal Lake 40 First Nation’s Museum of Canadian Human Rights Violations, a visit with curators and researchers at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and a visioning session for the project.

Go to the workshops tab for more info and photo gallery for this meeting.