Their community sits on a lake that has been the source of Winnipeg's drinking water for nearly a century, but residents of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation still rely on bottled water brought in from Kenora, Ont.
And despite their location in a region popular with cottagers – about a two-hour drive east from Winnipeg – residents have been unable to benefit from tourism because of concerns that development in the area could diminish the quality of water bound for the capital.
Now, a proposal by the City of Winnipeg to sell some of the water it draws from Shoal Lake to neighbouring municipalities has the community frustrated and seeking support from the federal government as it tries to challenge those plans.
Chief Erwin Redsky delivered a letter to Stephen Harper on Thursday asking the Prime Minister to uphold the federal government's treaty obligations to Shoal Lake 40 in the face of anticipated pressure from the City of Winnipeg to expedite the approval process.
Mr. Redsky says his community's situation is symbolic of the broken relationship with the Crown often cited by those involved in the Idle No More movement. With residents displaced and shut out from economic opportunities on their own shores, he says Ottawa has repeatedly failed to uphold its fiduciary duty to protect the community's interests.
"We hope that this time around [the Prime Minister] will act in the best interests of first nations and our rights," he said.
The Shoal Lake dispute dates back to a century-old order by the International Joint Commission, a U.S. and Canadian body that oversees shared-water issues. In 1914, the commission allowed Winnipeg to build an aqueduct to carry drinking and sanitation water to the city from Shoal Lake.
Mr. Redsky says residents of Shoal Lake 40 were forced off their original village site by the construction of the aqueduct. They moved to a nearby peninsula that straddled the border of Ontario and Manitoba, but that land became an island when a diversion canal was built to channel swampy water away from the intake pipe, isolating the community and forcing its members to cross the water or ice to accomplish tasks as basic as grocery shopping.
The community has also been stymied for decades in its attempts to develop a local economy, according to Mr. Redsky. Commercial fishing was halted in Shoal Lake in the early 1980s, and a proposal to build cottages was opposed by the City of Winnipeg, which feared the development would hurt its water supply.
Shoal Lake 40 eventually signed a deal with the city and the province agreeing to limit Shoal Lake 40 developments in exchange for support from Winnipeg and Manitoba in pursuing alternative economic opportunities – something Mr. Redsky says has yielded little in the way of employment opportunities so far.
After the City of Winnipeg announced plans to send some of the water it draws from Shoal Lake to neighbouring municipalities through a shared services agreement, nearby Iskatewizaagegan 39 First Nation sought a judicial review, which Shoal Lake 40 later joined.
The International Joint Commission wrote to the city last year, pointing out that the original, 1914 order that allowed it to take water from Shoal Lake indicated that water was to be used to meet the city's drinking and sanitation needs. "The provision of this water to neighbouring municipalities for the purposes of revenue generation appears to be inconsistent" with that order, the letter states.
The city did not respond to questions about its plans on Thursday, citing ongoing litigation and preparation of its submission to the commission.
But last month, the city's executive policy committee recommended that staff look to the federal government, the province and neighbouring municipalities for support in its plans to request an "expedited decision" from the commission.
Geneviève Guibert, a spokeswoman from the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs, said the dispute is a matter for the city, the province and the first nations to work out, adding, "We encourage them to work toward a mutually acceptable solution." The department did not respond to other questions on Thursday.
Mr. Redsky said he hopes the federal government will support his community's efforts to ensure Winnipeg's plans get a full International Joint Commission review.
"That's all we want. You know, we want a fair hearing. We want the city, the province and Canada to understand our situation," Mr. Redsky said. "It's devastating what my community has faced the past 100 years – and it continues to this day."
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story, which has been corrected, had an incorrect location for Shoal Lake 40 First Nation.