One of the biggest construction projects in Manitoba's history is underway to build permanent roads into that province's more remote communities.
The province's East Side Road Authority began construction of roads and bridges to create a permanent all-season network which will cover more than 1,000 kilometres and connect 34,000 Aboriginal people to the provincial highway system.
The first section of road under construction is a 156-kilometre stretch at the bottom of Lake Winnipeg connecting Hollow Water to Berens River.
“This was the first year of significant construction with one bridge built and two more under construction,” said Ernie Gilroy, the authority's CEO.
Handling the road and bridge construction are AECOM, the primary consulting engineer, and contract manager Dillon Consulting.
Winter road seasons are becoming gradually shorter. Residents in 13 First Nation communities on the east side of Lake Winnipeg have been held hostage by the vagaries of Mother Nature.
Gilroy said it's held back the area's economic development and tourism potential, as well as have been roadblocks to education and outside health care.
“The housing conditions are pretty dilapidated in these places and it's for no other reason than they don't have the materials to fix them.”
If connected to the provincial highway network by a permanent road, the communities could regularly receive supplies, building materials and it would spur economic development.
The Manitoba government has committed $1.2 billion – about $75 million a year – for the next 15 years.
If the province goes it alone without federal support, the all-season road network could cost more than $3 billion over a 20- to 30-year span.
That's why Gilroy is anxious to demonstrate to Ottawa that these series of road contracts are worthly investments.
In February, the feds dipped its toes in by shelling out $2.67 million in partnering with the province to build an access road into the Bloodvein First Nation to connect the community to the road network.
“This is the federal government's first opportunity to see how we manage this and I can assure you we will deliver this project on time and on budget.
“The goal is to demonstrate to Ottawa there is accountability, transparency provisions and a solid management team in place.”
Many of the East Side Road Authority managers, including Gilroy, are coming off the Red River floodway project.
“We want to show the federal government that we have all the management infrastructure and the local community has the skills and ability to do this.”
Building all-season roads has been something Manitoba politicians had talked about for decades. Residents were understandably skeptical.
The two-year long transportation study was conducted by SNC-Lavelin and involved extensive consultation with First Nations to select the routes.
Gilroy said it was left up to the communities to decide if year-round access to the provincial highway network was something they wanted to pursue.
A big part of the road authority's mandate is to ensure the communities see some significant near and long-term economic spinoffs. About 35 per cent, or $315 million, of the road construction budget is geared toward development opportunities, job creation and skills training.
Overseen by Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Minister Eric Robinson, a Cree from northern Manitoba, a series of community benefit agreements were signed to provide opportunities for First Nations to participate.
Gilroy said this process has never been tried before and although it's in the early stages, he's confident it will change the way Aboriginal communities will be integrated into major infrastructure projects.
“The agreements are for pre-construction activities so communities can learn how to run a company so when the real construction starts, they'll be in a position to bid on the work or be a sub-contractor,” said Gilroy.
Many locals currently don't have the skills to participate in the main construction work, like bridge building, but there are a myriad of job opportunities in security, camp setups and food services.
With $49 million invested in agreements so far – and more to come – the money is earmarked toward forming startup companies that can be engaged to crush gravel and brush out the right-of-way at a negotiated price.
“This road will take millions of cubic metres of gravel and rather than import people from the south, we think in the long run it'll be more efficient to help local communities set up gravel crushing operations,” said Gilroy.
According to contract requirements, road builders must have 30 per cent of the work hours performed by Aboriginal people from the communities, and bridge builders must have 20 per cent.
“The economic development spinoffs in the communities like Hollow Water and Blood Vein, you can see it quite a bit, there are a lot of paycheques being cashed right now,” said Gilroy.
About 80 per cent of the roads will follow the current winter road alignment allowing the communities to experience the benefits sooner, but also to minimize any disruption to the environment.
Some communities are applying for UNESCO World Heritage Designation status to protect their section of boreal forest.
To avoid disrupting wildlife, said Gilroy, “we are in the midst of a very extensive caribou monitoring process,” using tracking collars to map travel patterns and calving sites.
“Our approach to environmental management on the floodway project and East Side Road is we don't take the confrontational approach. The law is what the law is and we're expected to respect the environment, know the processes to follow and do what's expected of us.”
The entire project has legs to go 20 and 30 years, and open up vast areas of Manitoba to possible forestry, mineral and hydroelectric development
But unlike Ontario, where opening the Far North is built around gaining access to mineral wealth, Gilroy said the massive undertaking isn't being driven by a large mineral find or an expected return on the infrastructure investment through hydroelectric royalties.
“The government basically said these people need a better life.”
In areas where the potential for resource development exists, the Manitoba government passed legislation allowing each community to decide on its own traditional lands with the province facilitating the land-use planning process.
“Once the road is there, they'll have options, where there are none now.”