Build the “Freedom Road”

Winnipeggers owe a debt of gratitude to the residents of Shoal Lake 40, the First Nations reserve near the intake for the Shoal Lake aqueduct. The opening of that aqueduct in 1919 saved numerous lives by bringing clean, potable water to the city. The sacrifice of the Shoal Lake 40 community nearly 100 years ago meant city residents no longer had to fear that they were constantly exposed to disease-bearing drinking water.

Unfortunately for Shoal Lake 40, the community has not enjoyed the same benefits as Winnipeggers, since they have been under a nearly two decades-long boil water advisory. Essentially, they’re on the wrong end of the pipe. This is perhaps the most ironic outcome of the construction of the Shoal Lake Aqueduct and the creation of a community isolated from the mainland by a man-made canal to divert coloured Falcon River water from the aqueduct intake.

Prior to  the opening of the aqueduct, Winnipeg relied upon water from rivers and artesian wells. In early 1899, the city purchased the Winnipeg Water Works Company for $237,000. Artesian wells became the primary source of Winnipeg drinking water by 1900. By 1909, seven wells had been dug to depths of between 40 and 102 feet, supplying 10-million gallons daily. Two reservoirs stored 6.3-million gallons of water.

But the era of clean water became a myth when sewage seeped into and contaminated water mains and wells. In 1900, there were a reported 582 typhoid cases among the city’s 42,500 residents, resulting in 34 deaths. Two years later, the city’s population reached 45,500 and there were 356 cases and 29 deaths. When the population stood at 67,300 in 1904, the number of cases jumped to 1,276 and 133 people died. In 1905, there were another 1,606 cases and 106 deaths.

Even Red River water was finding its way into the city’s sewers as a result of it being used to fight fires. However, the river water contained so many suspended solids, that it was eventually considered of dubious benefit due to the lingering disagreeable odour that many believed was worse than the original fire (Western Canada Water, fall 2008, article entitled Winnipeg’s Aqueduct).

In 1906, the city established the Water Supply Commission chaired by James Ashdown. “Chemically, the water is decidedly unsatisfactory,” said the commissioners to justify the pursuit of a new water supply. “It is very hard and very saline, properties which make it unpleasant and expensive for domestic use, and unsuitable for use in boilers and many industrial processes.”

In 1913, newly-elected Mayor Thomas Deacon was the driving force behind the 160-kilometre Shoal Lake Aqueduct. The Greater Winnipeg Water District (GWWD) was created by an act of the provincial legislature on February 15, 1913, giving the new body the authority to establish and maintain the water supply for Winnipeg and several surrounding municipalities. An August 20, 1913,engineering report said the construction cost of the concrete gravity-system aqueduct would be $13,045,000 — it ended up being $17 million. Although the project was given the green light in Manitoba, there were still jurisdictional matters to be negotiated, which surprisingly only took several months despite the international ramifications of the project.  As the Manitoba-Ontario boundary line passes through Indian Bay, a tributary of Indian Lake, meetings had to be held to obtain Ontario’s approval in order to use Shoal Lake water. The discussions between Ontario and Manitoba officials ended successfully.

Since Shoal Lake was connected to Lake of the Woods, it fell under the jurisdiction of the International Joint Commission, an organization established in 1909 to regulate bodies of water along the Canada-U.S border. The GWWD required IJC approval before it could build the aqueduct.  The GWWD sent its applications to Washington and Ottawa on September 13, 1919.

In the meantime, Kenora sent in itsobjections, saying diversion of Shoal Lake water would by extension affect water levels in Lake of the Woods with adverse consequences to navigation, the lumber industry and tourism on the lake. Kenora also claimed there were other sources of water readily available to Winnipeg.

Representatives from Manitoba and Kenora met with the IJC in Washington's South Building on January 14, 1914.  Canadian engineers supported Manitoba, swaying the IJC to grant permission for the GWWD to divert Shoal Lake water to Winnipeg. An IJC caveat cautioned that only up to 100-million gallons of water a day could be diverted from the lake for Winnipeg domestic and sanity purposes.

In 1914 the International Joint Commission to Canada and the United States, which oversees lake and river issues in the two countries, said Winnipeg could divert the water if "full compensation would be made to all private parties whose lands or properties were taken, injuriously affected, or in any way interfered with by the Shoal Lake diversion."

The Shoal Lake 40 First Nation was “injuriously affected,” but any concerns they may have expressed at the time were effectively ignored. Newspaper accounts about the aqueduct don’t mention any concerns they may have had with the project even as the canal cut off the reserve.

But even before the IJC ruling, surveying had begun on the route of the aqueduct and the 160-kilometre long GWWD railway through the wilderness needed to supply the men and materials for the construction. 

Actual construction on the aqueduct began after the opening of tenders on September 19, 1914.  The first phase involved the diversion of the Falcon River, which had previously flowed into Shoal Lake at Indian Bay. 

On July 5, 1915, the Free Press reported that prior to the diversion, the Falcon River discharged dirty-looking water into a corner of the bay, as a result of swamp water draining into the river.

On March 27, 1919, at the western entrance to the Red River tunnel, a lever was thrown releasing the water into the last section of the aqueduct. The project was declared completed on Saturday, March 29,  although Shoal Lake water was not available for public consumption until April 5.

Construction of the aqueduct resulted in Shoal Lake 40 being flooded and cut off from the mainland, creating an artificial island. Its now time to address this inequity by building an all-weather road that connects the reserve with the outside world, aptly called the “Freedom Road” by the residents. It’ll cost an estimated $30 million. The new federal government has promised funding for the road, which is also supported by the city and province.

The road should now be fast-tracked in the spirit of fairness and inclusion.

Winnipeggers should remember that it was the sacrifice of Shoal Lake 40 First Nations residents that ensured the future of the city’s potable drinking water supply, enabling Winnipeg’s expansion and present prosperity.