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Aqueduct (a quick read)

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Adele Perry’s latest book about the Winnipeg aqueduct is a little gem (no surprise, given that the author is a historian who won a Clio award for her On the Edge of Empire about BC’s history).  It’s a short book that exposes the dispossession of the Shoal Lake 40 Anishinaabe First Nation to make way for the aqueduct intake.  Why Perry chose the topic can be found here.

A quick synopsis: at the turn of last century, Winnipeg was growing rapidly, claiming the title of Western Canada’s Metropolis.  But disease, particularly typhoid, was rife due to of lack of sewers and bad water supply.  The city eventually decided to get quality water from Shoal Lake, all the way across the Ontario border.  This required the okay from the International Joint Commission, in one of the formative decisions for the commission that deals with watersheds that straddle the US-Canada border.  The 150km long aqueduct was built, on time and budget, al little marvel of engineering.  To ensure a supply of good quality clear water, a dam was built across one of the inlets of the lake, to prevent the waters of Falcon river, tainted brown by natural humic acids, from reaching the intake.

Of course, there was no consultation with the local Anishinaabe inhabitants; some government reports claimed that the aqueduct would not affect the local community in any meaningful way, contradicting other reports that claimed that there was not even a community there.  The deck was stacked, clearly.  There was a vibrant community there, self-sufficient not only from the local wild resources (abundant fish, wildlife, wild rice) but also from agriculture.  Among the complaints that were dismissed by Indian Affairs, there is a record of the efforts of Chief Redsky in 1918 to be heard and get compensation.  He described the loss of lands (over 1500 hectares) as “enormous, consequential, and deeply unfair…the best part of the reserve…very good farming, good timber, good hay land.”

This story is reminiscent of the so-called rape of the Owens Valley, in California, following the (mostly illegal) appropriation of the Owens River water by the city of Los Angeles for its own aqueduct.  This is the story that was the setting for the oscar-winning movie Chinatown; many people have heard that story.  But who tells our own stories?  What do we know about our own water? Perry quotes from fellow historian Patricia Limerick who argues that “the forgetting of where water comes from is made possible by modernity.”

Learning about the injustices of the past, and about how we continue to profit from them, is a first step on the road to truth and reconciliation.  Before we can even acknowledge the injustice, we need to know it, and Perry’s book is a great contribution to uncovering the past.

The slim book is illustrated by numerous historical photos; but one criticism of it would be the lack of maps, which makes following the details a bit difficult at times.  I googled the aqueduct and realized it is back in the news, in a key controversy.  The aqueduct, the sole water supply of the city of nearly 800,000 inhabitants is threatened by the proposal for the east-west oil pipeline. According to Council of Canadians, the proposed pipeline is in the worst possible location: “Where the groundwater drains north, the pipeline is south of the aqueduct; where the groundwater drains south, the pipeline is to the north.” Not to mention the impact to the local First Nations who live along the joint path of the aqueduct and the pipeline, who are once again (almost) forgotten in the process.

Perry, Adele 2016. Aqueduct: colonialism, resources, and the histories we remember.  Winnipeg: ARP books.  Proceeds from the sale of the book go to Shoal Lake 40 First Nation.

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Written by enviropaul

March 22, 2017 at 5:18 pm

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