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Pollution and sewage spilling into the Red River is tainting Lake Winnipeg’s water supply and threatening residents who live near it, a $4-billion lawsuit launched by eight Manitoba First Nations claims.

The statement of claim filed against the federal, provincial and municipal governments Tuesday alleges all three breached their fiduciary details by allowing Lake Winnipeg to be polluted. Berens River First Nation, Black River First Nation, Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, Hollow Water First Nation, Kinonjeoshtegon First Nation, Misipawistik Cree Nation, Sagkeeng Anicinabe Nation and Poplar River First Nation each seek $500 million.

Chief Sheldon Kent of Black River First Nation says repeated sewage leaks into the Red River, which dumps into Lake Winnipeg, has contaminated the community’s water.

“Water is life,” Kent said during a press conference Wednesday morning.

The communities named in the lawsuit lie on the west, east and south shores of Lake Winnipeg, Canada’s sixth-largest late. It was named “threatened lake of the year” in 2013 by the Global Nature Fund due to its increased pollution.

The lawsuit alleges the city, provincial and federal governments violated treaty rights and orders all three levels of government to restore the lake’s ecological health.

“We need to hold these governments to account and we need to start having action towards protecting (Lake Winnipeg) and protecting her for a future — not just for Manitoba and First Nations people, but for all Manitobans,” said Brokenhead Ojibway Chief Gordon Bluesky.

Bluesky said the governments aren’t taking the contamination seriously after more than 228 million litres of raw sewage flowed into the Red River from Feb. 7 to 23 due to the failure of a pair of pipes underneath the Fort Garry bridge.

The lawsuit notes between January 2004 and mid-April 2024 the city reported about 353 “major unplanned discharges of untreated wastewater, which includes raw sewage” into the Red and Assiniboine rivers. That accounted for about 522 million litres of untreated wastewater, city data says.

“This is unacceptable that our people must be subjected to contaminated waters,” Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee said at the news conference.

The City of Winnipeg is the single largest polluter of Lake Winnipeg’s water, the lawsuit states.

City director of communications Felicia Wiltshire said the city is reviewing the claim and working to determine its next steps.

According to the lawsuit, oral and written promises made during the signing of First Nations treaties vowed to protect Lake Winnipeg, the river systems that empty into it and the surrounding lands.

“Indigenous people have cared for land and water for centuries and under the colonial leadership, have seen its health decline at an exponential rate through continued dumping of pollutants,” said E.J. Fontaine, Sagkeeng chief.

Fontaine alleged “environmental racism” and heel-dragging by the province and feds has led to the lake’s contamination.

“There’s no need to study the lake, it’s quite evident that the lake is sick … we need to take action.”

The federal justice department deferred a request for comment on the matter to the department of Crown-Indigenous relations, who did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.

In March, the provincial NDP government said it would make changes to Manitoba’s Environment Act to “help protect the province’s waterways” after the Fort Garry leak. Environment and Climate Change Minister Tracy Schmidt wouldn’t comment on proposed legislation tweaks Wednesday but said the province remains committed to protecting the environment.

“We all want the same things. We’re happy to continue those discussions and work together to find the best solutions and the best way forward to protect Lake Winnipeg,” Schmidt said. “The health of Lake Winnipeg has been deteriorating over decades, but we’re ready to reverse that course and we’re going to do that together.”

Schmidt said an investigation into the Fort Garry bridge sewage leak is underway and the province will share the results when available.

‘Water is life’: First Nations launch $4-B suit over Lake Winnipeg pollution

8 First nations file multi-billion-dollar lawsuit over pollution in Lake Winnipeg


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