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Inside Justin Trudeau's historic visit to an isolated Indigenous reserve in Canada

In April, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Shoal Lake 40, a community that has been on a boil water advisory for 20 years, for a VICELAND documentary airing this weekend in Canada. Here's a look at some of what he saw.
Imagen cortesía del documental Cut-Off de VICELAND .

In the warm sunlight of an April day, on a temporary bridge in an Indigenous reserve cut off from the rest of Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sat and listened to a survivor.

"Myself, I'm a destroyed individual," Stewart Redsky, a lifelong resident of Shoal Lake 40 told Trudeau. Shoal Lake 40 is a small First Nation community on a man-made island straddling the Ontario-Manitoba border that has been without clean drinking water for 20 years — and pushing for a permanent road to connect it to the mainland.


"Canada destroyed my mom and dad, intergenerational as they say," said Redsky. "And it also destroyed me and the family that is with me now today."

Redsky is a survivor of the notorious, now defunct, regime known as residential schools, which forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families and placed them in religious-run institutions, where many suffered physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.

His 90 minute meeting with Trudeau was one slice of unvarnished reality confronting the prime minister during a day-long visit to Shoal Lake 40 for Cut-Off, a special VICE Canada documentary that airs this Sunday on VICELAND in Canada. The unprecedented visit saw the Canadian leader deliver water to people's homes, hear from teens whose parents survived residential schools and who they themselves have to go live in another town to attend high school, share lunch with school children, and speak extensively with prominent figures in the community.

"If I made promises it's because I intend to keep them," Trudeau told Sarain Carson-Fox, host of the new VICELAND show RISE, who accompanied the prime minister on his visit.

"If I say we're going to eliminate all boil water advisories in five years, and it ends up taking five-and-a-half years, or six years, I think I'll be okay with that. And if it ends up taking 20 years, then I did break my promise. And knowing that these are goals, these are goals and things that need to be done because they have to be done. And people say, 'oh, it will cost this much.' No, you don't get to say that. This is Canada. We are a country wealthy enough to do this and to do this right. Because we have to. Not because we want to or because we promised to. Because it needs to be done."


Trudeau's visit to Shoal Lake 40 came amid heightened attention on the serious and longstanding issues faced by some First Nations communities in Canada, from poor housing, disproportionately high levels of suicide, and rampant boil water advisories that stretch on for years. Attawapiskat, a northern Ontario community of 2,000, made international headlines when it declared a state of emergency after 11 suicide attempts in a single night — and more than 100 over the span of seven months.

And it's not alone: Cross Lake, a Manitoba community also profiled in Cut-Off, grappled with a wave of suicides among youth earlier this year. Governments have responded by pledging millions of dollars for mental health services, most recently by the Trudeau government itself, which earmarked $70-million over three years for reserves across the country.

But Indigenous leaders and allies say while the money may help, what's necessary is a plan to address the underlying issues that lead to despair, especially among young people. "If we can build good homes, make sure that children have access to quality education, healthcare, and water. That goes beyond the mental health crises," Alvin Fiddler, grand chief for the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, that includes Attawapiskat, said earlier this week.

The Trudeau government has also pledged $1.8-billion over five years for First Nations water infrastructure, although various observers say it will not be enough. There are currently 131 drinking water advisories on 88 First Nations, not including British Columbia.


"As much as people say we must not look behind and move forward, for a true reconciliation and turning of the page, as painful as it is, we got to go back to that sad chapter of this Canadian history of residential schools," Redsky told the prime minister.

He mentioned his grandson, Cameron, who as a boy joined him on a march from the reserve to Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba, demanding a solution to the water crisis. When nothing changed, the boy turned to him, disillusioned. "He said, 'grandpa, we walked for nothing. They did not hear us. They do not care." Redsky confided in the prime minister that he had worried Cameron wouldn't show up to meet him on his visit to Shoal Lake 40. But, he did.

"He came back different, and I've never seen that for a long long time. I think Cameron is going to give Canada one more chance," said Redsky, who remains hopeful that a "new relationship" with the federal government is on the horizon. "And your coming made me open up that very difficult story. So, that could be the beginning of my own personal healing and also possibly the beginning of the healing for my family."

Trudeau walks with VICELAND host Sarain Carson-Fox, left, and Shoal Lake 40 Chief Erwin Redsky, upon his arrival.

Trudeau meeting with Shoal Lake 40 locals.

Trudeau visits Shoal Lake 40's elementary school.

Trudeau talks with Stewart Redsky on the temporary bridge at Shoal Lake 40.

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

Follow Natalie Alcoba on Twitter:@nataliealcoba