By Steve Bell
Several weeks ago, I found myself an interviewee-in-waiting at CBC’s complex on Portage Avenue, situated in sunny downtown Winnipeg. Talk-show host Ismaila Alfa requested an interview, having noticed I had publically backed a petition to the Federal Government asking for a firm commitment to the building of Freedom Road – a 27 kilometer provincial-grade road that would end a century of artificially imposed isolation for the people of Kekekoziibii (Hawk River) —otherwise known as Shoal Lake 40 First Nation.
The Federal government has committed one million dollars to a design study. However, to the people of Shoal Lake 40, “design only” sends quite a different message. They have already suffered two federally funded (and subsequently abandoned) studies for a water treatment facility, and are now heading into their 18th year under a boil-water advisory. They are feeling far from assured.
When it was time for my interview, Ismaila came to the area room to fetch me into the studio. As I was rising from my chair he suddenly smiled and pointed through the window to the church across the street. There, posted in large red letters on Elim Chapel’s street sign, were the bold words “We support Shoal Lake 40 Freedom Road.” It was all I could do to keep from tears, and I interviewed as a proud Christian.
Later that day I phoned my sister, Dorothy Fontaine, who serves as Director of Mission for Mennonite Church Manitoba. I was curious if she knew of any church groups organizing to support Shoal Lake 40. She informed me of a group gathering that evening and invited me to attend. ChurchesForFreedomRoad.ca was formed that night, and within a week a website and public awareness campaign were launched. In only a few weeks, over 40 churches (across several denominations, cities and provinces) have posted pictures of their street signs supporting Freedom Road, making a public statement that this is a Christian concern.
New photos come in almost daily as education and awareness grows. For now, the photos and various church-leader commendations are collected on the website, but will eventually be gathered onto one poster and sent to every Member of Parliament.
It came somewhat as a surprise when outgoing Conservative MP Joy Smith phoned me. “Bless you all for caring for God’s beloved!” she said before asking if I would join her on a trip to Shoal Lake 40 to meet with Chief Erwin Redsky and experience the community and the situation first hand.
I’ve written elsewhere what we learned on our detailed tour (see blog.stevebell.com), but suffice it to say that I left with any and all niggling reservations about the rightness of the cause removed.
In the midst of that information-rich visit, Ms. Smith, from whom I’ve otherwise heard sincere words of solidarity and respect for her party and its leader, lamented, “I don’t understand this…this is beneath us. This road has to get done. It’s simply the right thing to do.”
Returning home, Ms. Smith called a press conference to announce her unreserved support for Freedom Road.
While reflecting on all that has transpired up to now, I came across a quote from Augustine:
“Remove justice…and what are kingdoms but large gangs of robbers.”
ChurchesForFreedomRoad.ca will remain vigorously active until funds for Freedom Road are fully committed and construction has begun.
Steve Bell is a Winnipeg-based musician whose efforts on behalf of Freedom Road are reported in the Sep/Oct Faith Today. You can find out more about this movement at www.churchesforfreedomroad.ca.