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Stolen land, stolen water: the story of the Winnipeg aqueduct.

ADELE PERRY'S new book, Aqueduct: Colonialism, Resources, and the Histories We Remember, offers a timely contribution to discussions about the politics of water in Canada. While the book is specifically about the history of Winnipeg's water supply, it will be of interest to anyone concerned with water politics and the ongoing consequences of capitalist accumulation by colonial dispossession. I recently talked with Perry about the significance of Aqueduct and the importance of activist history.


In Winnipeg, 1919 is often remembered as the year of the infamous General Strike, but (...) you argue it should also be remembered for the construction of an aqueduct. Why is the history of the Winnipeg's aqueduct significant?


The Greater Winnipeg Water District began preliminary work on the Aqueduct as early as 1913, but it was in 1919 that Shoal Lake water first flowed in Winnipeg taps. The Indigenous knowledge about processing and organizing river water that had sustained the overwhelmingly Metis community of Red River settlement broke down in the face of rapid migration of newcomers to the city of Winnipeg in the last years of the 19th century and, more significantly, the first years of the 20th century. Winnipeg had enormous and enduring problems with water supply. The minimally processed water from the Assiniboine River gave people typhoid; the water from artesian wells was high in mineral content and always in short supply, especially in the working-class neighbourhoods of the north end. Finding a secure and plentiful source of water was a predicate to the city's continued growth.

The building of the Shoal Lake Aqueduct was enormously expensive and required massive amounts of political will and ambition, and it also required the thoughtless expropriation of Anishinaabe lands and the toxic powers of the federal government's Indian Act. It more or less solved Winnipeg's water problems, and has continued to do so for nearly a century.

Winnipeg's very existence, then, is predicated on the aqueduct and the water it carries the approximately 150 km from Shoal Lake to the city. This means that the city is built not only on Metis, Cree and Anishinaabe land, but predicated on the enormous loss that Shoal Lake 40 First Nation endured so the aqueduct could be built. We can't properly tell the story of Winnipeg, including its radical history of protest and dissent represented by the General Strike of 1919, unless we acknowledge what this has meant for Indigenous peoples in and around the city, but also those at a distance whose interests were sacrificed in the name of urban growth and health.


What lessons can an understanding of the history of the Winnipeg Aqueduct teach Canadians about the practices and politics of settler colonialism and capitalism?


The story of the aqueduct is modern Canadian colonialism in microcosm. Settler colonialism is the form of colonialism that has defined a lot of modern Canada, including 20th-century Winnipeg, one that works to create conditions of non-Indigenous demographic dominance and to naturalize it, making it hard for people, especially non-Indigenous ones, to imagine a different world.

Colonialism takes resources from Indigenous communities and reallocates them to settler ones. We tend to focus on the resource of land because it is so essential, but the case of the aqueduct shows us the way that colonialism also works to reallocate the precious commodity of clean drinking water. In order to build the intake of the aqueduct, the city of Winnipeg made use of the sweeping powers of the federal government's Indian Act, and more particularly a part of it called section 46, which empowered them to take reserve lands in the interest of "public works" without any consultation or process. The legal theft of Shoal Lake 40's reserve lands in 1914-15 resulted in them being isolated on an artificial island, where the community remains to this day.

For the last 18 years, Shoal Lake 40 First Nation has been on a boil water advisory, without the very commodity--good drinking water--their isolation was enacted to provide Winnipeg with.

This is hardly the only way that Shoal Lake 40 has paid for Winnipeg's secure water supply, but it is an especially revealing and galling example of how colonialism works to resource and empower non-Indigenous communities at the direct expense of Indigenous ones. It is a particular story, but also one that is replicated and echoed through Canada and other places where colonialism has come and stayed.


As an academic historian, can you speak to the importance of engaged scholarship and why you chose to donate royalties from your book to Shoal Lake 40's Museum of Canadian Human Rights Violations?


History is always about the present and it is always political. This project wears its politics on its sleeve. In doing so, I join a long line of engaged scholars who are committed to writing for a broad public, something that current projects like have really fostered in recent years. I also think the kind of archival research that historians do has a wider potential audience and wider purchase than we sometimes assume. In other words, I want to convince people that footnotes are beautiful.

There is a context of privilege that is worth noting. I teach in the Department of History at the University of Manitoba, where I am a full professor with tenure, and my colleagues and the university as a whole have received this work well. All of this adds up to give me security that authors and researchers without secure academic work or tenure lack.

This book is about Winnipeg, and about how the city was built on stolen water. I am a white settler who has lived almost all of my life in Indigenous lands and in Winnipeg almost as long as Shoal Lake 40 has been under a boil water advisory. I came to the topic because Shoal Lake 40 First Nation's Price of Water group has worked tirelessly to bring attention to the story, and this book is a small part of a larger wave of activism that includes the work of groups like Friends of Shoal Lake, Churches for Freedom Road, and Honour the Source. The royalties from the project go to support the Museum of Canadian Human Rights Violations, which is operated on the Shoal Lake 40 reserve (

Aqueduct is simply a must-read. In the light of the countless boil water advisories in many Indigenous communities and this summer's Husky oil spill on the North Saskatchewan River, which led to the Muskoday First Nation declaring a state of emergency after being shut off from its normal water supply, Perry's work has much to teach us about the politics of water, colonialism and Canadian history.

SEAN CARLETON is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and Honourary Grant Notley Postdoctoral Fellow in History at the University of Alberta. He is CD's pop culture columnist and a member of the CD Coordinating Committee.
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Title Annotation:Adele Perry, 'Aqueduct: Colonialism, Resources, and the Histories We Remember'; All That's Left: The Popular Front
Author:Carleton, Sean
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1CMAN
Date:Sep 22, 2016
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