‘ENVIRONMENTAL TRAGEDY’: First Nations launch $4B lawsuit over Lake Winnipeg

Eight First Nations have filed a more than $4 billion lawsuit against three levels of government for the ongoing “pollution and degradation” of Lake Winnipeg.

“What should be considered a national treasure is becoming the worst environmental tragedy of our time,” said Brokenhead Ojibway Nation Chief Gordon Bluesky about the current state of Lake Winnipeg at a press conference in Winnipeg on Wednesday.

“We have the 10th largest freshwater lake in the world sitting in our backyard, and what are we doing to it? We are polluting her.”

Bluesky joined chiefs from the communities of Black River First Nation, Poplar River First Nation, Sagkeeng Anicinabe Nation, Berens River First Nation, Hollow Water First Nation, Misipawistik Cree Nation, and Kinonjeoshtegon First Nation, to announce a joint lawsuit naming the city of Winnipeg, the province of Manitoba and the federal government as defendants.

A lawyer representing the chiefs said damages sought in the claim are “in excess of $4 billion.”

The lawsuit comes after the City of Winnipeg confirmed earlier this year that a massive sewage leak near the Fort Garry Bridge in south Winnipeg caused approximately 221 million litres of raw sewage to flow into the Red River, which flows into Lake Winnipeg.

The eight First Nations are all situated near Lake Winnipeg and have relied on the lake for centuries. They are growing increasingly concerned about how polluted the lake has become, and how much worse it might get if actions are not taken.

“We need to hold these governments to account and we need to start having action towards protecting (Lake Winnipeg) and protecting her for the future of not just Manitoba First Nations people, but all of Manitoba,” Bluesky said.

“The health in our communities reflects the health of our environment, reflects the health of that lake, so we have to have full support of our federal, provincial and municipal governments.”

The lawsuit does cite the sewage spill in Winnipeg earlier this year, but also claims there has been “ongoing” pollution and damage done to the Red River and Lake Winnipeg due to actions of all levels of government.

“In the First Nations’ beliefs, water is sacred,” the chiefs said in a media release. “The legal action is not solely about addressing pollution.

“It also encompasses the fundamental rights of the First Nations, including their Charter Rights and Treaty Rights. It emphasizes the fiduciary duties owed by the defendants to the First Nations, underscoring the honour of the Crown and the duty to consult on matters affecting their territories.”

The lawsuit is now seeking “to secure redress and compensation for financial and economic losses incurred due to the pollution.”

The chiefs added that while pursuing legal action, they remain open to dialogue with all levels of government named as defendants, “emphasizing the urgency of addressing the significant pollution of Lake Winnipeg for the benefit of all Manitobans, particularly the First Nations.”

A spokesperson with the City of Winnipeg said the claim is being reviewed to determine next steps.

The province and the federal government have not responded to requests for comment.

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun