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Droplet Interview: Adele Perry, Author of Aqueduct: Colonialism, Resources, and the Histories We Remember

Posted on May 19, 2016

Adele_Perry_AuthorWater Canada interviewed Adele Perry, author of the new book, “Aqueduct: Colonialism, Resources, and the Histories We Remember,” published by ARP Books. In the book, she analyses the development of Winnipeg’s municipal water supply as an example of the history of settler colonialism.



Water Canada (WC): Why did you take on this book project?

Adele Perry (AP): I took on this project as part of a wider group, or maybe even a movement, of people in Winnipeg who have been working to draw attention to and call for action around the injustices built into our system of municipal water, and in particular what it has meant for the Annishinaabe community of Shoal Lake 40.

This community has been working to address the difficult and untenable circumstances they live in for a long time, and have told their story with remarkable power and persistence. In the past five years or so people in Winnipeg responded in a range of ways, including the ‘Honour the Source‘ crowd-funder, the September 2015 Water Walk, the Churches for Freedom Road, and ongoing work of Friends of Shoal Lake.

WC: How did you form an interest in this area of history?

AP: I started with an op-ed piece co-written with my partner Peter Ives and a couple of twitter essays. As I kept doing research I realized that there was more there, and the interest and support from relevant people and institutions. ARP’s “semaphore” series seemed like a good place to publish: semaphore is “the art of signalling over long distances,” and the series publishes “small books on big ideas.”

I am a historian of colonialism and western Canada, though my research usually focused on the nineteenth-century. Aqueduct took me into the twentieth-century and into the archives kept by the Department of Indian Affairs in Ottawa, the records of the Greater Winnipeg Water District, the archives of the City of Winnipeg, and in popular media of the first part of the twentieth-century. In doing this research I was struck by the significance of Winnipeg’s problems with water supply from the 1880s to the day when Shoal Lake water flowed in Winnipeg taps, and by the amount of money and political will the city was willing to expend in solving this problem.

I was also struck by how total practices of Indigenous erasure were in these records, especially in the newspapers and popular writing about the building of the Shoal Lake or Winnipeg Aqueduct between 1913 and 1919. I teach and read about the federal system of Indian Affairs in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but was still surprised by the willingness of the federal officials to put the interests of a settler city above those of the Indigenous people, and the extent to which Canadian laws allowed them to do so.

WC: What is the central idea presented in the book?

AP: Aqueduct puts the focus on the city of Winnipeg, and argues that Shoal Lake water has been critical to the city’s history and present. Its central thesis is that the shared history of Winnipeg and Shoal Lake is a powerful example of how colonialism, and more particularly settler colonialism, has worked to remove resources from Indigenous communities and deliver them to settler ones.

The book asks a series of questions about water, history, and the present. What happens when we look seriously at the history of drinking water, and recognize the amount of money, serious thinking and political ambition that were put into motion to supply decent drinking water to urban populations? How are Indigenous histories and, at core, Indigenous lives ignored or minimized when we narrate this story as a triumphant one? What happens when urban people are compelled to see what their water has cost an Indigenous community? As far as policy responses go, over the last year there has been a lot of movement on the issue of which is in critical step in addressing the issues experienced by the community, including the almost twenty years of a boil water advisory.

I hope that Aqueduct contributes to making sure that this movement continues, that Freedom Road gets built, and that the community that has supplied Winnipeg’s water for so long will soon be able to drink that same water.

Adele Perry is a professor of history at the University of Manitoba. She was born and raised in a non-Indigenous family in British Columbia. Perry noted that “royalties are generated from the book will go to the Canadian Museum of Human Rights Violation, which is part of Shoal Lake 40′s ongoing efforts to draw attention to the community’s circumstances.” Aqueduct: Colonialism, Resources, and the Histories We Remember is available through ARP Books website.

You can find Adele on Twitter at @AdelePerry.


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