First Nations Take Legal Action Against Government Over Lake Winnipeg Pollution

May 2, 2024

Treaty One Territory – Eight First Nations bordering Lake Winnipeg have jointly filed a legal action against the Federal Crown, the Province of Manitoba, and the City of Winnipeg, addressing the ongoing pollution of Lake Winnipeg by the City of Winnipeg.

The First Nations involved in the claim filed in the Manitoba Court of King’s Bench are:

  • Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, represented by Chief Gordon Bluesky
  • Black River First Nation, represented by Chief Sheldon Kent
  • Poplar River First Nation, represented by Chief Vera Mitchell
  • Sagkeeng Anicinabe Nation, represented by Chief E.J. Fontaine
  • Berens River First Nation, represented by Chief Hartley Everett
  • Hollow Water First Nation, represented by Chief Larry Barker
  • Misipawistik Cree Nation, represented by Chief Heidi Cook
  • Kinonjeoshtegon First Nation represented by Chief Tony Travers

The pollution of Lake Winnipeg and the Red River by the City of Winnipeg has been a recurring issue, with major sewage spills and continuous discharges of effluent into the waterways. The most recent incident occurred in February 2024, when over 221.2 million litres of raw sewage flowed into the Red River. This ongoing discharge, both treated and untreated, has caused extensive environmental damage and pollution, directly impacting the health and well-being of the First Nations’ citizens.

The legal action is not solely about addressing pollution; it also encompasses the fundamental rights of the First Nations, including their Charter Rights and Treaty Rights. It emphasizes the fiduciary duties owed by the defendants to the First Nations, underscoring the Honour of the Crown and the duty to consult on matters affecting their territories.

In the First Nations’ beliefs, water is sacred. Lake Winnipeg, known as Weenipagamiksaguygun in Ojibwe, is considered a living being with a spirit. Weenipagamiksaguygun has served the First Nations for generations as a source of ancestral knowledge, healing for the body and soul, and sustenance. The First Nations believe they have a duty to speak for Weenipagamiksaguygun and the life within it. Thus, they bring this action not just on their own behalf, but also on behalf of Lake Winnipeg, given their deep spiritual and social connection with water.

Through this legal action, the First Nations aim to secure redress and compensation for financial and economic losses incurred due to the pollution. While pursuing legal recourse, they remain open to dialogue with all levels of government named as defendants, emphasizing the urgency of addressing the significant pollution of Lake Winnipeg for the benefit of all Manitobans, particularly the First Nations.

Quotes from Chiefs:

Today, our First Nations stand united in legal action to protect our lands and waters, which are the lifeblood of our communities. Although we had hoped to avoid court, it’s crucial to recognize the profound importance of water to our people—it sustains us, connects us to our ancestors, and is integral to our cultural identity. Yet, despite our repeated pleas for protection, the government continues to disregard the devastating impacts on our nations and families. It’s time for meaningful action and accountability—for the government to acknowledge and address the harm inflicted and ensure the preservation of our precious resources for future generations.

Chief Gordon Bluesky, Brokenhead Ojibway Nation

These discharges of untreated wastewater and raw sewage are not only an environmental disaster; they are a betrayal of our trust and the legacy of our ancestors. Our lands, entrusted to us by treaty, are under siege, and our resources are being plundered without consequence. We will not stand idly by while our birthright is trampled upon. We demand justice and accountability.

Chief Sheldon Kent, Black River First Nation