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Canada Isolated First Nation reserve with no clean water to make case before UN

A boy from the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation sits on a bridge over a man-made channel made to support Winnipeg's water system which has cut them off from the mainland in this file photo.

JOHN WOODS/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A reserve cut off from the mainland and under a boil-water advisory for almost two decades is taking its case to the United Nations.

Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, which straddles the Manitoba-Ontario boundary, became isolated a century ago during construction of an aqueduct which carries water to Winnipeg. The reserve has no all-weather road and has been without clean water for 17 years.

A delegation from the reserve is expected to travel to Geneva, Switzerland, in February to make its case to a United Nations committee on economic, social and cultural rights.

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The First Nation is also part of a worldwide investigation by Human Rights Watch. That review is to be presented to the same UN committee reviewing Canada's human rights record.

Chief Erwin Redsky said his delegation will outline "all the human rights violations we suffer daily," including a lack of clean water, no freedom of movement and inadequate health care and education.

"We're going to tell the world what's going on in Canada here, specifically to Shoal Lake 40, what's been going on for 100 years now," he said.

Since there is no permanent road, people from the reserve risk their lives every winter walking across the ice to get to and from the mainland. Some have died.

The aging ferry that residents rely on in the summer failed to pass government inspection last spring, which prompted the reserve to move out elders and declare a state of emergency. The ferry was patched up, but will need more extensive repairs.

Children who reach high school have to move off the reserve to continue their education. Elders and those who are sick don't have access to proper health care since many medical professionals won't risk getting to the reserve, Redsky said.

Many residents leave the community regularly just to take a shower at community centres in Kenora, Ont.

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"Canada is one of the richest countries in the world," Redsky said. "This should not be happening."

Residents have been lobbying for years for what they call a permanent Freedom Road into the community. Public support and pressure has been growing among multi-faith groups, social justice activists and the business community.

The City of Winnipeg, Manitoba and federal government have put up $1 million each for a design study, which is to be completed in January. An all-weather road is expected to cost $30 million, shared by the three levels of government.

Winnipeg has said it would help pay for construction, but only the provincial NDP government has committed to earmarking cash in its upcoming budget.

The federal NDP and Liberal party have promised to fund Ottawa's share of road construction if victorious in the Oct. 19 election.

Redsky said he hopes the United Nations can increase pressure on Canada and Winnipeg to do what's right for the people of Shoal Lake 40.

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"Once we get road access to our community, we hope to push for a water treatment plant and push for economic development which we desperately need."

Amanda Klasing, senior researcher with the New-York-based Human Rights Watch, said Shoal Lake 40 is one of four Ontario First Nations that will be studied in depth for her report to the United Nations committee.

No conclusions have been reached yet, she said.

"There has been a lot of public focus on the water advisories and concerns, but there certainly are sanitation issues ... that I haven't seen reported as widely," Klasing said.

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