On November 5th, residents of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and members of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation gathered at the Winnipeg Art Gallery to witness the world premiere of Freedom Road. A National Film Board of Canada production, this five-part documentary film series follows the two-year construction of a 25-km stretch (called “Freedom Road”) connecting Shoal Lake 40 Anishinaabe First Nation, which sits on the Manitoba-Ontario border, to the Ontario mainland and the Trans-Canada Highway.
A Century of Isolation
In 1915, Shoal Lake 40 First Nation was forcibly relocated from their traditional territory so that Winnipeg could build an aqueduct to feed Shoal Lake water to the city. The work also required the construction of a dike and canal that effectively split the Shoal Lake 40 reserve into three parts and relocated much of the community, separating them from the mainland by an
expanse of water.
The community’s isolation was made even more arduous in 1997 when cryptosporidium was found in Shoal Lake 40’s drinking water, putting the community under a boil-water advisory. The lack of road access made it virtually impossible to build and maintain a water treatment plant, so the advisory has yet to be lifted.
Prior to the completion of Freedom Road this year, community members had to travel across the lake, either on an aging barge, the Amik II, or over an ice road throughout the winter months. During spring break-up and fall freeze-up, many made treacherous and often dangerous trips on thin ice.
Everyone in the community has a harrowing story of a loved one falling through the ice while trying to cross the lake, many of which are shared throughout the film series. Perhaps the most terrifying are the ones told in the WOMEN/IKWEWAG film—stories of pregnant women and new mothers fearing for their babies but having no choice but to make the trek.
Telling Their Story
Freedom Road was an eight-year effort between Shoal Lake 40, the Federal, Provincial and Winnipeg governments, close to 20 First Nations and the International Joint Commission; however, the fight began decades before. “It’s a hundred-year-old story that we’ve been fighting for,” said Chief Erwin Redsky to APTN.
The film series commences at the tail end of the eight-year battle, filmed over two years as the road was being built. The series was written and directed by Angelina McLeod, a Winnipeg-based scholar and activist who comes from Shoal Lake 40 First Nation. Using a community-driven approach, she tells the story through the eyes of her people, sharing the community’s dignity, strength and perseverance.
Viewers are first drawn in to the series with a bird’s eye view of the land, sweeping over the gorgeous lakes and forested region. The beautiful scenery is quickly interrupted by Daryl Redsky’s narrative, offering an entirely different way of seeing the waters.
The documentary proceeds to detail the multi-generational effort to build a road that would reconnect Shoal Lake 40 First Nation to the rest of the world. “[The films] are meant to mirror the governance structure that the community operates from,” explained Alicia Smith, the film’s producer. Following the first contextualizing film, stories are shared by men (ininiwag), women (ikwewag), youth (oshkaadizigg) and elders (gitchi-aya’ aag).
Hope for the Future
Freedom Road is just the beginning of the economic change and growth that is now possible for Shoal Lake 40 First Nation because of mainland access. After being under a boil water advisory for more than two decades, a water treatment plant is finally being built and is expected to be completed by December 2020.
“We have some major projects coming up, a lot of them,” said Roxanne Green, the community’s economic development officer, “and we just have to keep fighting for maximizing all the benefits where we can for the community, making sure that we’re heard at the negotiation table. Those are the next steps.”