How Lake St. Martin First Nation Saved Winnipeg’s Ass.

Originally published in the “Beyond The Books” Column of Shameless Magazine, as How Lake St. Martin First Nation Saved Winnipeg, Environmental Justice issue 29, Spring 2015:

How Lake St. Martin First Nation Saved Winnipeg’s Ass.

It’s hard to talk about the destruction of a (FN) First Nation community, sacrificed without a second thought, for the benefit of mostly urban, Canadian settlers living on Indigenous territories—without referencing Colonialism, or genocide in this country—it seems to be in accord with the patchwork of strategies that have historically been implemented to undermine Indigenous Nations.     

In 2011 heavy rain and snow-melt caused high-water levels on the Assiniboine River—which runs through Winnipeg other urban centers. To prevent “catastrophic flooding,” excess water was sent into Lake Manitoba, but farmland and thousands of cottagers were now threatened.  

The Fairford Dam was opened sending water into (LSM) Lake St. Martin. With nowhere else for water to go, over 2,000 LSMFN people were evacuated from their homes, with little or no notice—sent to hotels in cities theyhelped save, while their own homes were condemned, contaminated by water damage and mould. Large portions of Reserve declared “uninhabitable”. What many thought temporary stretched to months and years. 

In the film, Treading Water: Plight of the Manitoba First Nation Flood Evacuees, by Janelle & Jeremie Wookey, people are often heard saying, “We want to go home!”

The people of LSMFN are HEROES—albeit unwilling heroes, they are heroes nonetheless. Homes, community, culture, safety, well-being—all these things have been compromised for the well-being of others. Non-native property and homes were saved thanks to the sacrifices foisted upon them.

 Imagine millions of dollars in property damage had this flood been allowed to run its natural course along more densely populated areas of the Assiniboine—or damage to cottages and farmland. 

Neither flooding Winnipeg nor cottages was deemed acceptable—but somehow flooding Indians wasn’t as a concern. This isn’t just Environmental Racism. It is environmental conditions intentionally altered to benefit some, to the detriment of others.

Flooding of LSM was not a natural phenomenon. It was not a natural disaster—it was proceeded by a series of decisions: the choice to construct the 1960 Fairford Dam, the choice by successive governments to ignore complaints of increased flooding by LSM Residents since construction of the 1960 Dam, the choice to construct the 1971 Portage Diversion, the choice to widen this Diversion during the 2011 flood, the choice to divert waters into Lake Manitoba, and the choice to divert waters into LSM. 

The 2011 flooding was a man-made disaster—it could’ve been avoided the same way flooding of Winnipeg, farmland, and cottages was averted; solutions had been put in place to divert water elsewhere—“elsewhere” happened to be LSMFN, who were not afforded the same level of protection as other Canadians.  

            I’d like to say flooding a FN’s community was a one-time mistake. But it’s not—it’s an all-too familiar narrative in Indigenous communities across Canada. My own FN, Lac Des Milles Lacs, was flooded repeatedly over the first-half of the 20thCentury with the construction of Dams forcing people to abandon their homeland. It’s only now, over fifty years later, with construction of an Access Road that people are returning. 

            In darker moments, I think this pattern of infrastructure that floods Indians out of their homes on-reserve is intentional (think pipe-lines, tar-sands, mining, oil-extraction, the fact that the current Colonial government has demonstrated its commitment time and again to ramming through legislation that undermines FN’s rights, and positions FNs as adversaries—viewing FNs and their connection to their lands and territories, as a stumbling block to un-sustainable extraction of resources). When feeling optimistic, I think it’s just that Indigenous Peoples are not afforded the same level of consideration as other Canadians. 

            In conclusion, LSMFN saved Winnipeg, (and Manitoba’s) ass. Their is a debt that needs to be repaid—and the people of LSM are paying a price while they wait—waiting for governments to agree on a new community-site, waiting for homes free from flood-waters and mould, waiting while people lose hope—the death toll now sits at seventeen—seventeen lives lost to suicide and despair. Culture-shock, break down of family, community, way of life—the list of costs is long, and for some, it’s already too late.  

The question remains, how does Canada treat its heroes?


About nathanadlerblog

Nathan Adler is the author of Wrist and Ghost Lake (Kegedonce Press), and co-editor of Bawaajigan ~ Stories of Power (Exile Editions), he has an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC, is a first-place winner of the Aboriginal Writing Challenge, and a recipient of a Hnatyshyn Reveal award for Literature. He is Jewish and Anishinaabe, and a member of Lac des Mille Lacs First Nation.
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