Skip to content

Pre-election budget goodie to fund Berens River bridge and road

Infrastructure project would bring permanent road to Indigenous communities and connect lithium deposits to markets
Conceptual of the Berens River bridge near Pikangikum

Ottawa appears willing to put some significant funding dollars behind the long-overdue Berens River bridge and road project in northwestern Ontario.

Yet it still remains a mystery on how much is being allocated to this key piece of Indigenous-led infrastructure project that will link seven remote communities to the provincial highway system for the first time and allow a lithium mine development company to connect to the marketplace.

A line item in last week’s federal budget — as part a raft of $9 billion in new spending for Indigenous people and communities over five years — makes mention of funding for the Berens bridge and all-season road.

But the government, inexplicably, lumped funding for the Berens project together with another all-seasons road project in Saskatchewan, for the sum total of $89 million. 

Little in the way of details was available from Indigenous Services Canada, the department designated to receive the funding.

So it appears it will up to Thunder Bay-Superior North MP Patty Hajdu, Canada’s Indigenous services minister, to make the official cheque presentation some time this spring or early summer.

“It’s a bit too early to know that for sure,” responded Simon Ross, director of communications in Hajdu’s office, by email. 

“We’ll work on this in the coming weeks. But in short, we’ll be there to support the Berens River bridge.”

The money is expected to roll out over the next four years.

Almost framed as a 2025 election year goodie, the listed timeline for the first tranche of $20 million in funding, for both projects, will be delivered during the government’s 2024-2025 fiscal year, followed by $31 million and $34 million in successive years, before wrapping up in 2027-2028 with $4 million.

No timeline was provided to indicate a start date for the bridge and road construction.

The Berens project is a long overdue piece of regional infrastructure that’s been discussed by the communities for decades. Ottawa has been slow in rolling out infrastructure dollars for mine projects despite its call for more extraction of critical minerals to feed the clean tech and electric vehicle movement.

The road and bridge would serve two purposes. 

Starting near Pikangikum, about 90 kilometres north of Red Lake, the project involves building a two-lane, 194-metre modern span across the Berens River, plus realigning and beefing up a winter road to connect more than 8,000 people in Pikangikum, Deer Lake, Keewaywin, McDowell Lake, North Spirit, Poplar Hill and Sandy Lake to Highway 125.

It would also provide vital road access for Frontier Lithium to move its mined material out of its PAK project to a processing plant. With two high-grade spodumene deposits, Frontier has one of the best mine-ready lithium projects in North America.

But the Sudbury company isn’t saying much on the budget item until the politicians do. 

“Nothing official from us until there is an announcement and more details,” replied a Frontier spokesperson by email.

Frontier is one of four leading lithium players with advanced exploration projects in northwestern Ontario. Avalon Advanced Materials and Green Technology Metals have selected Thunder Bay to be the host community for a refinery. Rock Tech Metals Lithium chose Red Rock and its future port site for a processing site.

Eric Melillo, Conservative MP for Kenora, conceded a funding commitment for the Berens project is “important" for the region.

In a statement, Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak said the budgeted $9 billion in spending still falls well short of the $349 billion needed to close the gap on Indigenous infrastructure needs across the country.