WINNIPEG — Pressure is growing on the federal government to help fund construction of a road for a reserve that is under one of Canada’s longest boil-water advisories.
Manitoba, Ontario and the City of Winnipeg have sent letters to Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt urging the Conservatives to chip in $10 million needed to connect Shoal Lake 40 First Nation with the outside world.
The First Nation straddles the Ontario-Manitoba boundary and was carved off from the mainland a century ago to build an aqueduct that supplies fresh water to Winnipeg. The reserve has no all-weather road and has been under a boil-water advisory for 17 years.
“Citizens across our province, particularly those benefiting directly from Shoal Lake’s waters, are demanding that governments take action to help rectify this First Nation’s situation,” Manitoba cabinet minister Kevin Chief and Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman wrote in an April letter obtained by The Canadian Press.
“As a partner at the table, we would like to see a commitment, in principle, from the federal government to the construction of Freedom Road upon completion of the detailed design.”
Neither have received a response. A spokesperson for Valcourt declined to answer questions about funding a road.
Representatives from all three levels of government are to gather Thursday in Shoal Lake 40 for an event commemorating the quest to build an all-weather road, dubbed Freedom Road.
All three have paid for a design study, which is expected to be complete next year, but construction of the road is expected to cost about $30 million.
Municipal Government Minister Drew Caldwell, responsible for the Shoal Lake file, said the province is willing to pay one-third of the road construction if the city of Winnipeg and Ottawa do the same.
“It’s a very modest amount of resources to make a huge, huge qualitative difference in the lives of people,” Caldwell said. “There is such a moral responsibility and moral obligation. We recognize that fully. We are completely moved to action.”
The community was cut off from the mainland earlier this year when their aging ferry didn’t pass federal inspection. The reserve — with no way for people to get groceries, water or immediate medical attention — declared a state of emergency.
The ferry has since been patched up but Chief Erwin Redsky said a long-term solution is needed.
Every year, people trying to get home fall through the ice.
Paramedics and home-care workers won’t come into the community — either by ferry or on the ice — for safety reasons. Solid and liquid waste is piling up on the man-made island because there is no way to transport it safely to the mainland.
At the same time, the federal government has said it will spend $100 million to twin the nearby Trans-Canada Highway across the provincial boundary.
The people of Shoal Lake 40 will not allow that to happen as long as they remain isolated, Redsky said.
“All we’re asking for is a single lane,” he said. “Everybody around us has clean water. Everybody has roads. Everybody has gravel to fix their roads and we don’t have anything out here on this man-made island for 100 years now.”
Former Ontario transportation minister Glen Murray wrote a letter to his federal counterpart Lisa Raitt in 2013, warning plans to expand the Trans-Canada Highway were in jeopardy. The First Nation’s support is “essential” to the project, he said.
“It is hard to imagine how we can expect this community’s support when they remain isolated and cut off from all opportunity.”
Valcourt replied in January 2014: “Due to overwhelming funding pressures, a formal funding commitment is not achievable at this time.”
Chinta Puxley , The Canadian Press