Advocates plead for more cash to help build road for isolated reserve

An isolated reserve under one of Canada's longest boil-water advisories is looking for more money to build an all-weather road which advocates say will save lives while correcting a historical wrong.

WINNIPEG — An isolated reserve under one of Canada’s longest boil-water advisories is looking for more money to build an all-weather road which advocates say will save lives while correcting a historical wrong.

Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, on the Manitoba-Ontario boundary, was cut off a century ago during construction of an aqueduct which carries fresh water to Winnipeg. Surveyors said at the time that the land was largely uninhabited “with the exception of a few Indians.”

While water continues to flow to the Manitoba capital, the reserve of several hundred people has been under a boil-water advisory for 18 years. A water treatment plant is prohibitively expensive without a road to transport construction material and supplies.

Residents use an aging ferry to get to the reserve in the summer and a treacherous ice road in the winter. People have died falling through the ice.

All three levels of government announced in December that they would share the cost of construction by chipping in $10 million each. It was originally estimated to cost $30 million to build a permanent road — dubbed Freedom Road by residents — but that has been revised to $46 million after a detailed design study.

“We’re not at all surprised that the price is different than people thought it might be in 2011,” said Ernie Gilroy, head of the East Side Road Authority which is overseeing construction. “This is the Precambrian shield here … It’s tough terrain.”

Gilroy said the study determined the road needs a tougher rock base. The bridges being constructed by the city of Winnipeg have also tripled in price, he said.

Only the provincial government has confirmed it will cover the increased cost. Premier Greg Selinger said Manitoba has enough money in its infrastructure budget to chip in another $5.5 million.

“We’ve always said we’re in for a third,” Selinger said Tuesday.

“It’s a simple matter of justice for those people to have access in and out of their community. Then they can start improving the quality of their water. We have to rectify that situation.”

Advocates asked Winnipeg city council to boost its contribution to $15.5 million as well. Shoal Lake 40 resident Sharon Redsky said the community has suffered enough.

“It’s going to save lives,” she told councillors on Tuesday. “Nine people have lost their lives in Shoal Lake just trying to get home. I think it’s really important that we tell the families that their lives weren’t lost for no reason.”

Chuck Wright of the Friends of Shoal Lake 40 travelled recently with many city councillors to the reserve to see the predicament first-hand. It’s time for the city to “do the right thing,” he said.

“Many of us in Winnipeg see this as a symbolic road to reconciliation,” Wright told council. “It’s a first step to righting those wrongs that have historically happened.”

Mayor Brian Bowman, noting the federal government is still working with the $30-million figure, said extra cash will not be allocated in this year’s city budget. But Winnipeg is committed to the road and will see it built, he said.

“Make no mistake about it, the commitment and the leadership has been there and will continue to be there to ensure that we get the job done.”

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