Shoal Lake, located on the border of Ontario and Manitoba, has been the subject of much recent controversy. However, the cause of this controversy is more than 100 years old.

In 1915, an aqueduct was built to carry water extracted from Shoal Lake to Winnipeg. Today, Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, with a population of about 500, does not have direct access to drinkable water because of construction of this aqueduct. Built on an old burial ground, the aqueduct isolated the community on a man-made island accessed by a ferry. Thus, the residents are forced to transport drinking water from Kenora. The lack of an all-season road means that residents often risk their lives crossing the icy lake in winter. Therefore, the band has been lobbying for a “freedom road” that will allow them to transport building materials and drinking water safely, along with greater government support for sanitation and waste management in the community.

In a seminar Nov. 2, 2015, Dr. Angela Failler, Dr. Peter Ives and graduate student Anna Huard from the University of Winnipeg discussed Shoal Lake 40’s activism, and the band’s response to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR). Shoal Lake 40’s creative lobbying efforts have generated public interest and attention for both the community and the CMHR, says Failler. During a fundraising event in Winnipeg for the CMHR, the people of Shoal Lake 40 walked from the reserve to the event in peaceful protest to help bring attention to their plight. Lobbying by community members continued with letters to government officials.

Shortly before the national museum opened, Shoal Lake 40 opened its own museum, the Museum for Canadian Human Rights Violations. It showcases poor conditions on the reserve, calling for a response from the CMHR and the government. Shoal Lake 40’s residents point to the contradiction between the very expensive CMHR and its celebration of Canadian human rights, while “on the other end of the pipe,” a community suffers so that Winnipeggers can get clean drinking water. Failler says that this local museum is not just a “counter museum” to the CMHR but a tool to raise awareness about the community’s current struggles and “a forum for meaningful dialogue that might be a basis for social change.”

Political scientist Peter Ives says that Shoal lake 40’s efforts have resulted in support but “there is still no road.” While CMHR executives and government representatives have visited Shoal Lake 40, and many Winnipeg residents have become vocal on the issue, there has been little action by the government to help improve the community’s infrastructure. The federal government has committed $1 million for the road’s design only. Ives says that the Museum for Canadian Human Rights Violations has been “incredibly effective at getting people involved…and the amount of attention that Shoal Lake got was impressive.” However, the commitments from governments are still uncertain. Ives says that the Museum for Canadian Human Rights Violations forces us to think about infrastructure, including the aqueduct and “freedom road,” and to carefully consider our ideas about land and property in relation to colonialism. Thus, Ives concludes that even though Shoal Lake 40’s efforts have yet to result in financial support from the government, the Museum for Canadian Human Rights Violations “sets the bar very high” as an activist museum.


Has Canada been internationally embarrassed by this specific situation? Why doesn’t this issue resonate more with individual Canadians since it is contradictory to Canadian values?

There are now international agencies working with Shoal Lake 40, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. As well, the Tripartite environmental management agreement for the lake involves the U.S. Therefore, there are sites of embarrassment, but not enough.

There are many First Nations communities with these types of problems. Therefore, Shoal Lake’s case is not exceptional, which results in some people turning a blind eye to it. As individual citizens, most people are not aware of how to help.

Audio podcasts of seminars in this series are also available.