Erwin Redsky is chief of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation and Cathy Merrick is chief of Pimicikamak Okimawin.
The Canadian Museum of Human Rights opened with fanfare last weekend in Winnipeg but we are not in the mood to celebrate. For our two communities, the museum is a towering shrine to hypocrisy.
While the $350-million national museum showcases the ideal of human rights, aboriginal people suffer the deprivation of basic rights every day. As a stark example of this contradiction, the very operation of the museum – it's use of water and electricity – infringes directly on our right to exist as viable communities in our homelands.
The water that will pour from the museum's taps and fill its "reflection pools" will come – like all of Winnipeg's water – from Shoal Lake, where members of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation were relocated to make way for Winnipeg's aqueduct and have lived under a boil water advisory for 17 years.
Unlike politicians, museum staff recognize the tragic irony that we, the people of Shoal Lake, face. During a visit to our community in July, a shaken Clint Curle, head of stakeholder relations for the museum, told the Kenora Daily Miner of "a whole cascade of human rights issues" faced by Shoal Lake 40, including "the rights to health, personal security, freedom of movement and association, and even the right to life."
In 1919, our community was moved to make way for an aqueduct to Winnipeg, 160 kilometres to the west. Later, a channel was dug to redirect swampy water away from the aqueduct intake. That turned the peninsula to which we had been moved into a man-made island, increasing our isolation.
A century later, the beneficiaries of the aqueduct have still not built an all-weather road and bridge over the channel.
For most of the year, the 275 residents of our community use either a ferry – at our own expense – or an ice road. But during freeze up and ice thaw periods neither of those two options are available. We must cross treacherous ice to access necessities, including medical care.
This has led to numerous deaths and countless close calls over the years.
In addition to our access issues, Ottawa refuses to build a water treatment plant for our people. The water from our taps is not safe to give to our children.
Given this legacy, we are inviting Canadians and the world to visit a more realistic museum, the Museum of Canadian Human Rights Violations. This is the living museum of our community. Our doors are open.
Amnesty International representatives have visited this museum and support our efforts. Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians and former United Nations Senior Advisor on Water, is also standing with us.
In contrast, the architect of the official human rights museum, Antoine Predock, has said water will be a symbol of "healing" in the building's reflection pools, not recognizing that when we look into those pools we will see a century of sorrow. We will see what we lack.
Those crystal clear pools hold our tears.
Similarly, the lights illuminating the museum's galleries are linked directly to a decades-old development that benefits society as a whole at the cost of aboriginal well-being.
Starting in the 1950s, Manitoba Hydro constructed a northern hydroelectric system that has profoundly affected roughly 35,000 aboriginal people, including Pimicikamak, a nation of 8,000 Cree people and their lands, some 500 kilometres north of Winnipeg.
Like the people of Shoal Lake, we as Pimicikamak people live with loss. The dams permanently flood 65 square kilometres of land and destabilize hundreds of kilometres of critical shoreline habitat. This undermines land-based industries and traditional practices.
The dams also create unpredictable ice conditions in winter and submerged wood debris (from shoreline erosion) in summer, which have caused fatal snowmobile and boating accidents, respectively.
We have received some compensation and Manitoba Hydro has taken some measures to mitigate the damage, but still, our once-beautiful and bountiful homeland is a mess.
The dams are a wound on the land and in our hearts. Each light in the museum will plug directly into this wound.
Because of the direct links between the museum and our two communities, we, along with others, were camped on a hill near the museum during the weekend of opening festivities. We added our presence and stories to the mix.
We recognize they are harsh stories. We deliver them with an open spirit, inviting Canadians to join us in healing the broken relationship between us.
We are glad the museum will raise the profile of values such as respect and equality. We are glad the exhibits will be well-lit and will include healing waters. At the same time we want Canadians to know that for many aboriginal people, the grandiose structure is a bitter reminder of what we do not have.
We do not want to have to take our kids to a museum to learn about human rights, we want them to experience it at home.