On a sunny spring day at the end of April, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spent a day in Shoal Lake 40, an indigenous community in crisis on the Manitoba-Ontario border. VICE Canada accompanied Justin on this visit as part of a new documentary called CUT-OFF that airs Sunday night on VICELAND. Here, CUT-OFF host Sarain Carson-Fox, who toured the region alongside Justin, shares her thoughts on the message behind the meeting.
How did you become involved with the documentary work that VICE is doing? I started working with VICE Canada on RISE — it’s a VICELAND series that brings viewers to the frontlines of indigenous resistance and really showcases not only resistance but resilience in First Nations communities across Canada, the U.S. and the world. [The first episode of] RISE will actually premiere at 11 p.m., right after CUT-OFF this Sunday.
What’s the significance of the name CUT-OFF? It’s really actually quite simple. Shoal Lake 40 is a community that is literally cut off from the rest of Canada and cut off from basic services that would allow it to be an empowered community.
In specific, how does being cut off affect Shoal Lake 40 residents? It affects them in a couple ways. [It affects their] access to basic human rights, basic services such as clean water. [The community is located on an island, so] its residents rely on a barge to bring them back and forth that, quite often, is out of service. And there are no sewage lines or proper sewage on the island, so there’s also no waste management. All of these things affect the way the community is actually able to sustain itself.
What’s the ultimate goal of the documentary? CUT-OFF explores not only the struggle but [also] the resilience of indigenous youth. I think that it’s the youth who are really going to advocate for change. This documentary fully immerses Justin Trudeau in the community, and allows the community to speak for itself, and to actually tell its stories directly to the government, through Justin Trudeau. Which is unprecedented access; the community has never had this kind of time with the Prime Minister.
What was the most surprising aspect of Justin Trudeau’s arrival at Shoal Lake 40? I can’t speak for the entire community, but for myself, I have to say that, when that helicopter touched down, I wasn’t really sure how the people were going to react. But it was a swarm of excitement and photos. My favourite moment is actually with one of the first people Justin Trudeau meets: an elder has no idea who he is when he introduces himself. Which I just find ironic and beautiful. But there was definitely excitement, and that surprised me, the amount of excitement.
What was your first impression of Justin? You know, I definitely have to [approach] this cautiously as an indigenous person. I was very aware that this was somebody who was coming to the community, willing to at least embrace and follow the people as they communicate to him. So I think my first impression was of someone who was open to do that, which I am not used to in a leader, especially not from the federal government.
Do you feel that Justin Trudeau is going to have an impact on the lives of Canadian aboriginal people? I think that there’s an opportunity [here] to start a new way forward, and to create a new relationship, and I think that’s the same thing I heard from Chief Redsky. He said that Shoal Lake 40 is an example of a “broken relationship, but it can also be the model for a new relationship moving forward.” And so I agree with that perspective.
What will happen if the government’s promises are not fulfilled? Well, nothing will happen. That’s what’s been happening to Shoal Lake 40 and countless other First Nations across the country. Promises that are not kept don’t create any change. So if Shoal Lake 40 does not get access to the mainland and does not have access to clean water, and the boil-water advisories are not eliminated, not only in Shoal Lake but [also] across Canada, then First Nations communities are continuing to live below other Canadians’ standards. And I don’t think that’s acceptable.
How can the rest of the Canadian population help? I think that it’s access like this, and media [coverage] like this that creates a dialogue and a conversation, especially with CUT-OFF, which is a visually beautiful and in-depth look at the real situations of First Nations across Canada. And I think that if Canadians are willing to engage in a dialogue, then there can be a new way forward and through reconciliation. We can choose to create an entirely new future.
Is there anything else you want people to know? I think that this documentary is a pure and raw voice of the community. And for me, I think that it was a wonderful opportunity to witness this. And I would like to say that it’s the youth in that community who are speaking throughout this documentary, and I really want to showcase that and say that that should be the conversation that Canadians have: [listening to] what the youth have to say, as the voice of this community.
CUT-OFF airs on VICELAND, City and viceland.com on June 19 at 10 p.m. EST. Immediately following, viewers can watch a special sneak peek of the pilot episode of RISE.