A plan is finally in motion to build a long-overdue 25-kilometre access road to an isolated and neglected northwestern Ontario First Nation community straddling the Ontario-Manitoba border.
Prior to the Manitoba government recessing for a provincial election in April, the East Side Road Authority was given political approval to expand beyond its borders and take on the so-called Freedom Road project for Shoal Lake 40.
The island community has received national attention for its forced isolation and enduring a boil water advisory for close to 20 years.
The previous Harper government refused to allocate funding to the project, but the Trudeau government has pledged their commitment to finally connect the community to the outside world.
Under a three-way funding agreement, the Manitoba government, the City of Winnipeg and Ottawa have agreed in principle to provide dollars to build the all-season road.
With a price tag of $46.5 million, Ernie Gilroy, the East Side Road Authority’s CEO, said if all levels of government soon sign off on the funding package, construction could start this summer or fall.
Gilroy expects to have the road’s detailed design from AECOM in hand by the end of April at which time the authority will prepare construction tenders.
Plans call for a gravel road, leading off the Trans-Canada Highway and west of Falcon Lake in Manitoba, running southeast to the community located just inside the Ontario border.
The community had been located on a peninsula until 1913 when it was cut off from the mainland by a diversion canal built to channel drinking water from Shoal Lake to the City of Winnipeg via an aqueduct.
A ferry is the only means of reaching the mainland during non-winter months. During freeze-up, residents haul supplies over the ice.
Two bridges are to be built, including one over the aqueduct, which, Gilroy said has been tendered and is part of the City of Winnipeg’s contribution.
It’ll be a two-year construction phase over terrain that’s mostly Canadian Shield rock.
“In terms of challenges, it’s a hard place to build a road,” said Gilroy, “but the east side of Lake Winnipeg is a hard place to build a road. That’s why we got involved in the situation because we have experience both building roads…and working with First Nations.”
The East Side Road Authority is the Crown agency in charge of a massive infrastructure project to extend permanent roads into remote First Nations communities on the north and east side of Lake Winnipeg.
Gilroy expects the Freedom Road project to bring immediate and long-term benefits to the community.
Besides creating construction jobs for locals, the Manitoba government is offering a 20-year road maintenance contract to the band.
“The idea is, we’re going to manage it in a manner that maximizes the economic development opportunities for the community,” said Gilroy. “The way it’s shaping up is, we would tender it out to fairly good-sized contractor to get this done in short order, who would be required to provide jobs and training during the construction phase for Shoal Lake First Nation. The First Nation would be owner of the project, similar to what we do in the communities on the east side of Lake Winnipeg.”
The Ontario government is expected to come aboard as a partner.
The road authority has pitched a funding proposal to Queen’s Park to allocate dollars for road maintenance equipment purchases, operator training, and a maintenance shed.
The timing to finally act on building Freedom Road has much to do with the federal and provincial governments wanting to twin the Trans-Canada Highway between Kenora and the Manitoba border. The project engineers need to know how Freedom Road will intersect with the main highway.
Not intending to be bypassed, Shoal Lake 40 must be consulted and sign off on the four-laning project.
Shoal Lake has repeatedly made it clear that it will not support the highway expansion until they see guarantees of money being in place to build their road.
Chief Erwin Redsky was not available to comment.
“This (Freedom Road) project is really complementary to the twinning of the Trans-Canada Highway and it all has to come together at the same time,” said Gilroy.
The road authority was created in 2009 by the NDP government as an extension of the former Manitoba Floodway Authority, an agency set up to project-manage the Red River Floodway expansion.
To date, Gilroy said the province has spent $350 million on the road network with $525 million more being committed.
The community of Bloodvein, 210 kilometres north of Winnipeg, was the first community to be linked up in 2014. Berens River, to the north, is next in 2019.
Gilroy said there are 13 communities participating in the project through community benefits agreements worth an estimated $95 million. Five bridges have been built and opened this winter.
“It’s pretty significant progress.”
Being four years into a 30-year mandate, Gilroy said it’s too early to tabulate the economic positives, but Bloodvein residents no longer fly out for medical appointments and sick children can be driven to a hospital.
“We haven’t quantified what those medical benefits are in dollar amounts, but on the social side it’s huge.”
The benefits are starting to show.
The new Bloodvein First Nation Construction teamed up with a Metis contractor, Stirling Ducharme, to jointly perform $25 million of work for the authority.
“They are now a bonded contractor,” said Gilroy. “First Nations getting bonding is almost unheard of.”
Progress on that scale is slower in the smaller communities, but thousands of jobs have been created along with 315 skilled training opportunities as of early March, he added.
“If there’s one thing that is positive it’s that the broader community is starting to understand just how poorly we have treated our Indigenous people,” said Gilroy. “There was a day when ideas like we put forward on the East Side Road would never have been accepted. But the government here has been very progressive and it’s really starting to show.”
However, heading into the election, the Opposition Tories under Brian Pallister are vowing to scrap the authority and hand over its duties to the Department of Infrastructure and Transportation.
The escalating costs to build Freedom Road – jumping from $30 million last fall to $46.5 million – have come under sharp criticism.
The Conservatives said Freedom Road would still proceed, but any signed agreements would be reviewed for cost overruns. Gilroy harboured no worries about any project delays.
“Our hope is that by April 19 (election day), the proper documentation is in place so that we can proceed with the community benefits model regardless of who is elected.”