The Red River and its vast watershed was vital for food and transportation for the Indigenous Peoples and early settlers. In the late 18th century the river became the life-line for the fur trade.
For the Manitoba Métis, the river symbolizes the birthplace of their people. The significance of the Red River is woven into traditional Metis sashes!
The Red River has always been important to Selkirk’s economy. What is largely overlooked is how important the river was to the health of the citizens of this region. For decades after the arrival of Europeans, the creation of towns and the expansion of agriculture, the Red River was used as a sewer. Springtime epidemics of typhoid fever, cholera, diphtheria and other water-born diseases became a feature of life in the lower Red River valley. Before modern medicine, adults and children died each year due to polluted drinking water.
From 1886 onward, effluent from the Manitoba Asylum flowed directly into the river via pipes under Dufferin Avenue. When Selkirk developed its sewer system in the early 1900s, sewage was flushed untreated into the river.
But Selkirk was not alone in polluting the Red River. Manure from animals at local farms and from those further upstream contaminated the drinking water supplies during the spring floods. As well, the growing metropolis of Winnipeg deposited not only sewage, but also industrial chemicals from its factories and detergents from its households. This went on until the Town of Selkirk launched a lawsuit against the Province of Manitoba and the City of Winnipeg for polluting the Red River in the 1980s.
The NDP had passed the Manitoba Environmental Act, but Winnipeg was excluded from the Act. Because the Province was named in the lawsuit, Selkirk received no support from them, but the province was quickly removed because they were more “forthcoming with information.”
Jackie Walker was Selkirk’s legal counsel at the time of the lawsuit. Unfortunately, he was terminally ill with cancer and had to close his firm in Selkirk. Selkirk’s council quickly replaced him with their law firm selection, Dan Williams’ Law. However, Walker was the original counsel in the case, and it was agreed that he would in fact see the lawsuit through to the end. Selkirk won the suit, and the City of Winnipeg was included in the Manitoba Environmental Act. Selkirk had received the outcome they had hoped for.
Making the Best of It
During a winter festival in the early 1980s, Bill Shead challenged the Mayor of Winnipeg, Bill Norrie, to a bannock and tea making contest. The contest then became a scheduled event. An Indigenous restaurant owner was the judge along with her employees, and there was only one rule: that each contestant had to use the water from their own community. However, Bill Norrie had a trick up his sleeve to win “Best Tea Maker.” He brought along Guy Savoie who was one of the councillors from St. Boniface. He was dressed as a Voyager and snuck in a special alcoholic beverage called Caribou. He slipped a bit of Caribou in the tea which led Bill Norrie to win “Best Tea Maker.”
More Work to Do
Despite the lawsuit and other efforts to clean up the river, there are many other pollutants in the Red River. Due to human activities the river contains high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. This has happened because of the agricultural and urban runoff of chemicals used during farming and everyday use. Untreated sewage has leaked into the Red River. High levels of fecal coliform have been found in Lake Winnipeg. In addition, large floods like those of 1996 and 1997 pushed debris into the water. The debris has since settled at the bottom or flowed towards Lake Winnipeg.
The Red River and Lake Winnipeg have played crucial parts in the history of Indigenous peoples and helped create the Red River Settlement which led to the founding of the City of Selkirk. The pollution of these waters continues to be a challenge today. Finding new ways to live sustainability will help preserve these important water ways for years to come.