Canada's government will not commit to building a road to an isolated Ontario First Nation that has suffered for 18 years without potable water despite being surrounded by Winnipeg's own tap water.
On June 25, after a groundbreaking ceremony to build a permanent bridge across a man-made canal that turned Shoal Lake 40 First Nation into an island in 1914—diverting contaminated water away from the Manitoba capital's water intake—band members reiterated their call for a year-round gravel roadway to reach the TransCanada Highway nearly 20 miles west.
“The government of Canada only acts when a crisis happens,” said Shoal Lake 40 chief Erwin Redsky. “We're not looking for a patch. We want the immediate commitment to build Freedom Road—that's what we're after.”
Spanning the boundary between Ontario and Manitoba, Shoal Lake 40 has had to boil its water since a gastroenteritis outbreak in 1997, as well as endure decades of perilous crossings over melting ice to reach the mainland. In May, the band declared a state of emergency when its only ferry was deemed unsafe by Transport Canada for several weeks.
The band had been optimistic in anticipating a June 25 high-profile visit from Natural Resources and Northern Ontario Development Minister Greg Rickford, The Tyee reported. Shoal 40 members had hoped that Rickford would announce federal funding to share the construction costs of the road with Manitoba and Winnipeg, both of which have expressed support.
Instead he reiterated the Conservative government's pledge from last July to pay $1 million toward the design of what they call “Freedom Road,” as reported by CBC News at the time. But he stopped short of making any commitments toward the estimated $25 million needed to finish it.
"Our Government is pleased to work with Shoal Lake No. 40 First Nation and our other partners on the design of the Freedom Road project," Rickford said in a statement. "This initiative will help improve the economic conditions of First Nation community members by providing all-weather road access to the Trans-Canada Highway through Manitoba."
Some residents burst into tears at the refusal to commit to more than $1 million, the Canadian Press reported, while one held up a sign reading, “No Road for Us, No Road for You.” It echoed the words of a local drug and alcohol counselor, Stewart Redsky, who warned that if his beleaguered reserve's road does not go ahead, then neither will a proposed expansion of the TransCanada Highway.
Redsky’s emotions ran deep as he reflected on Canada's role in isolating his reserve over the past 100 years.
“I get kinda emotional about who is to blame,” he said. “Canada are the ones who didn't protect us back in the day.”
Redsky added that he “can't even imagine” how good it would feel to be able to reach his home by road any day of the year.
“I've never had that, I've never been fortunate enough,” he said. “We're so used to how we're living here—the hardships, curfews, risking your life daily to survive.”