Behind the Scenes of Justin Trudeau’s Visit to Shoal Lake 40 with Cut-Off Host Sarain Carson-Fox
Cut-Off host Sarain Carson-Fox meets with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

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Behind the Scenes of Justin Trudeau’s Visit to Shoal Lake 40 with Cut-Off Host Sarain Carson-Fox

Cut-Off meets Indigenous youth who grew up without drinking water.
June 18, 2016, 3:04pm

It's one thing to imagine 18 years without clean drinking water, it's another to grow up in that reality, not knowing any other way.

That's business as usual for youth living on Shoal Lake 40, a remote First Nations reserve on the Manitoba-Ontario border that was literally cut off from the mainland when the government excavated a massive trench to serve as the Winnipeg's fresh water reservoir. They don't remember a time when their small community didn't have to haul jugs of water out of boats and pickup trucks by hand. And up until Canada's prime minister visited the reserve earlier this year, the kids hadn't had a real opportunity to ask why.

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Shoal Lake 40 youth and residents met Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in April during his visit to the First Nation for a special VICE Canada documentary. VICELAND host Sarain Carson-Fox was there to witness the historic meeting and to talk to Canada's leader herself. Before that, she met with young people living on Cross Lake reserve in northern Manitoba, one of several isolated Indigenous groups dealing with a wave of suicides this year. The resulting documentary, Cut-Off, that airs this Sunday on VICELAND in Canada, accepts a challenge raised by these communities: to see and feel their struggles up close, and to sit with the uncomfortable questions these kids raise.

Hailing from Bowating First Nation just outside of Sault Saint Marie, Carson-Fox counts herself among the same generation of Indigenous youth rising up and making themselves heard after more than a century of division, neglect and silence imposed by Canada's residential schools. She's spent the past year travelling around the world to learn more about the experience in other Indigenous communities for an upcoming VICELAND show called RISE. Ahead of the June 19 release of Cut-Off, Carson-Fox took us back to her time at Shoal Lake 40, and her experiences meeting with Indigenous groups around the world.

VICE: When you visited Shoal Lake 40, did you have an idea of what you were going to hear, going in?
Sarain Carson-Fox: I went in thinking the community was prepared to really hammer out the issues they've been lobbying the government for, and it was so not about that. I mean yes, Freedom Road came up over and over again, but for Shoal Lake 40, they were more interested in being able to be heard, to talk about the whole picture, about everything that has happened to the community—not just the fact they want a road. It was really about having an opportunity to interact with the leader, especially for the young people.

You have Trudeau on record making big, long-term promises in this film, like ending boil water advisories within five years. How do you feel now about capturing that?
That is so tough, because just like with any other human being, there's that yearning to trust, to be inspired and excited. It's a natural response, but for me, the more I hear him promise, the more nervous I get about what the reality of these outcomes could be. Especially when you're making promises to the youth. Young people have a way of remembering and holding you to your words. The interesting thing about promises from the government is that on our side, the Indigenous side, there's never been any broken promises. When you look from that perspective, it's like, we're only used to broken promises from the government, but we've kept our word.

Trudeau answers questions from Shoal Lake 40 youth

You've been visiting a lot more communities than just Shoal Lake 40 and Cross Lake, can you tell me about that, about your journey as a host and storyteller?
Oh my goodness. So the other work I do with VICELAND is co-host a show called RISE and it's focused on Indigenous resistance and resilience all across Indian country. I haven't even found the right words yet to describe the immense respect I've gained in the last year from being surrounded by incredible, selfless, wise people and communities who are just willing to put their lives on the line and do whatever it takes to not only save their people, but to make way for this Earth to be available to future generations. I know that might sound really cheesy, but those are the stakes. They're fighting against big business to remain sovereign Indigenous people—and that's worldwide, the situation is the same worldwide. For me that has just been eye opening, and it's scary and overwhelming and also just beautiful. Because the common thread is the resilience.

How does what you saw and felt on those isolated reserves compare to your own experience growing up Indigenous in Canada?
From an Indigenous ideology, we are all one. It's a colonial view that forces us to see each other as "other." The one amazing thing about visiting one of these communities, is you're almost immediately respected as being home. But on the other hand, I grew up privileged, because I was close to the city, I grew up in the arts, I went to boarding school for dance. So in a lot of ways I grew up seeing those things, but have always had the idea to get out—the option to see something else. What's happening with a lot of these young people is they're surrounded by this situation all the time. It's hard to see a way out, hard to see another side or to imagine that your community could be whole, could be functioning.

Trudeau visits Shoal Lake 40 elementary school

Is there a moment in the film that's stuck with you?
The same night I did all the interviews, I watched the entire cell video of Joni Ross [a Cross Lake teen who committed suicide this year, who made a video of herself singing a Brooks & Dunn song days before she died]. It's quite long, it's the whole song. That was the first time I got to see her and hear her on my own, and that was taken just before she took her own life. Seeing that, and hearing her mom and dad talk about her life, that will stick with me forever. What will stick with me is how they so freely and openly talk about her life in the face of the most tragic of events in time. They're still willing to tell their story. Indigenous people are naturally so open. I think about that all the time—how part of what's happened to Indigenous people worldwide is that they've opened their hearts, and have always been willing to engage in dialogue, and I think that's been to their demise. Generosity and kindness that's been used to colonize and create so much damage.

Cut-Off airs at 10pm ET/PT Sunday June 19, in Canada, on VICELAND, City, and VICELAND.com.