Ottawa will double funding for an access road to this remote Indigenous community
The Canadian government is doubling its funding for a road connecting Shoal Lake 40, an Indigenous community lacking access to basic government services, to the rest of Manitoba.
The Trudeau government confirmed to VICE News on Tuesday that they would contribute a total of $20 million to the access road in order to cover the full cost of the project.
Known as ‘Freedom Road,’ the 24-kilometre road would connect the island reserve, which is about a two-hour drive from Winnipeg, to the mainland and the Trans Canada Highway. As it stands, residents of the reserve have to make the journey over an ice road in the winter, and in the summer they travel by barge — although it routinely breaks down. People risk their lives trying to cross the ice during winter freeze-up and spring thaw, when there is no other way across. White crosses along the shore mark those who didn’t make it.
Earlier this year, VICE Canada visited the reserve with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, after he committed $10 million to the road. There, he promised to end rampant boil water advisories in First Nations across Canada.
The road will also bring down the cost of building a much-needed water treatment plant for the island’s 300 residents. Shoal Lake 40 has been on a boil water advisory for nearly two decades — one of the longest standing advisories in Canada — and relies entirely on bottled water deliveries.
Monday’s funding announcement came after federal officials met with Shoal Lake 40 Chief Erwin Redsky in Winnipeg. The meeting concerned a funding shortfall; while three levels of government, including the City of Winnipeg, had each promised to pay $10 million toward the road, for a total of $30 million — costs had surpassed that total by more than $3 million, leading the three governments to quibble over who would fund the remainder.
The federal government’s commitment Monday of up to an additional $10 million solved that problem, Chief Redsky told VICE News.
“It will be a couple years before we can drive from our community to the Trans Canada Highway, but that’s the goal,” Chief Redsky said. “We’ve still got work to do but today was a real milestone.”
Chief Redsky told VICE News he had risked his life walking across the thin ice so he could make it to the meeting with federal officials in Winnipeg.
“It’s risky, scary,” he said. “I had to walk across to get to my meeting in Winnipeg. We’re on edge, we’re in survival mode, and we got through it without anyone getting hurt.
“It’s unfortunate, but that’s why this road is so critical to the survival of the community. It’s going to be a few years yet, but at least we’re on the right track.”
He said it would take a minimum of three months for the province to complete an environmental assessment that’s needed to build on off-reserve land, but in the meantime the reserve will continue construction on the stretch of road that’s on its land. About 25 workers are currently being trained in construction to prepare for the job.
The announcement comes at a time that Shoal Lake 40 resident Daryl Redsky called “Alcatraz Week” — the week every winter when residents can’t leave the island because the water is too frozen for the barge to cross the water, but not frozen enough that they can walk or drive across.
Last Friday, 30 people, mostly service providers who live off reserve, were stranded on the island when the barge broke down. Boats eventually took some people across, but others were forced to walk across the thin ice. The ice was thick enough to hold their weight, but that isn’t always the case. The small community has lost many lives to the ice.
Shoal Lake 40 wasn’t always an island. In 1914, the City of Winnipeg built a canal and intake pipe to divert water from Shoal Lake to the city. The canal cut the reserve off from the mainland, and diverted clean water to Winnipeg, leaving the reserve with undrinkable water. Today, Winnipeg residents still enjoy treated water from Shoal Lake while the reserve relies on bottled water funded by Indigenous Affairs.