Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink…

I don’t know if Samuel Taylor Coleridge knew how accurate his verse from The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner was when he wrote it. The World Health Organization estimates that everyday billions of people around the world drink water that will kill them because they have no other source. These people are forced to drink contaminated water because there is no safe water. Drinking contaminated water leads to infection and ultimately death from things that we don’t even consider diseases in the minority world, conditions like Diarrhea kill people everyday. The World Health Organization reported that 1.4 million children die from Diarrhea every year. This is why March 22 is World Water Day, to raise awareness about the global issues of unsafe water and lack of access to water. Ryerson Urban Water hosted Walk4Water on Tuesday to raise awareness about the lack of quality water sources and the lack of access to water around the world. The 6Km walk on Tuesday represented the length that women and children in the majority world must walk to reach a water source multiple times a day.

Ryerson Urban Water is a multidisciplinary group from natural and social sciences, engineering, and education that want to advance the understanding and provide solutions for urban water issues using a holistic approach. They work to educate the public, industry, and government on urban water issues through educational programs, community outreach, and training. Additionally, they provide a platform/forum for discussion and exchange of ideas on urban water issues for the general public, scientists, engineers, industry, policy makers, and the different levels of government.

Living in Toronto for my whole life it is hard to imagine having to walk father than my tap for clean, drinkable water. What’s even harder to imagine is that there are people in Canada who don’t have access to clean water. Even though Canada has probably some of the cleanest water in the world and has access to a vast amount of fresh water there are still people living without equal access. Our provinces and territories have a responsibility to provide us with clean water and our cities have the responsibility of treating that water to ensure that it is safe for use. But what happens when you don’t live in a traditional city or town? What happens when you’re isolated on a manmade island and ignored by people around you? Your life slowly deteriorates into the poisonous water that surrounds you.

This is the reality for the Indigenous people of Shoal Lake. On the border of Ontario and Manitoba there is Shoal Lake, this is home to two First Nations communities, Shoal Lake 39 and 40. Almost 100 years ago the City of Winnipeg wanted a clean water source and they came to an agreement with the Province of Ontario to use the water of Shoal Lake. To access this water they built a 135Km aquaduct along with canals to divert muddy water and in doing so turned the land of Shoal Lake 40 into an island. The people of Shoal Lake 40 have been living in isolation on this island ever since, using a barge to access the mainland in summer and walking across the ice in winter. During the spring thaw and the fall freeze the mainland is entirely inaccessible.

The people of Shoal Lake 40 do not have access to clean water. Their island is surrounded by the muddy water that is diverted away from the water that Winnipeg uses. The only way the people of Shoal Lake get clean water is by having community members truck in bottled water from Kenora. This is not only expensive but it is harming the micro and macro-environment. Due to the isolation of Shoal Lake 40 they cannot remove anything from the island, this means that garbage piles up contaminating the land and water. The obvious solution here is to make a water treatment plant that serves Shoal Lake and if this was not an Indigenous community this would have been done decades ago. However, the community of Shoal Lake 40 has been told repeatedly that their population is too small to justify the cost of a water treatment plant. Too small to justify access to clean water, too small to justify access to a healthy life, too small justify life.

In 2000 the community of Shoal Lake 40 was put on a boil water advisory which means that their water was contaminated to the point that it would only be safe to consume if it was boiled first, to kill the bacteria that infests it. Why was it allowed to get to that point and how long were these people drinking contaminated water for? I can’t answer these questions but I presume an uncaring government played a role. A government that prides itself on the work we do around the world, keeping peace and aiding those in need when our own people are dying in isolation. Our people are dying because they don’t have access to medical professionals, they are dying because we are stealing their clean drinking water, they are dying because they fall through the ice trying to access the outside world, and they are dying because we are turning a blind eye. How much longer must the people of Shoal Lake 40 wait for access to clean water?

There is one spot of hope in this whole tale and this is the new Liberal Government. In December of 2015 Justin Trudeau came to an agreement with the City of Winnipeg and the Province of Manitoba to build Freedom Road. This is a connecting bridge between Shoal Lake 40 and the rest of the country. No longer will the people of Shoal Lake live in isolation. However, they will continue to live with contaminated water. After almost 100 years of isolation the Indigenous community of Shoal Lake 40 will have unobstructed access to the mainland, but how many more centuries have to pass before they can drink water from their taps as easily as I can, as easily as we all can?