We value: Our readers.
Our independence. Our region.
The power of real journalism.
We're reader supported.
Get our newsletter free.
Help pay for our reporting.

Tories 'Support' Shoal Lake's Freedom Road, but No New Funds Attached

Retiring MP says feds pledged to cover construction costs, then backpedals.

By David P. Ball 11 Aug 2015 | TheTyee.ca

David P. Ball reports on affordable housing for Tyee Solutions Society. Send him tips or comments by email, find him on Twitter @davidpball, or read his previous reporting published on The Tyee here.

The Conservative government signalled its support Monday for the construction of a road to an isolated First Nation surrounded by Winnipeg's drinking water -- which reserve residents cannot drink themselves because of an 18-year boil water advisory.

But whether that federal support "in principle" for Shoal Lake 40 First Nation's proposed "Freedom Road" includes the estimated $10 million in construction costs needed to match the $20 million already pledged by Manitoba and Winnipeg remains up in the air.

Water isn't the only problem facing the First Nation, whose reserve straddles the Manitoba-Ontario border. The reserve was turned into a manmade island a century ago by a diversion canal for contaminated water. Its leaders insist an all-season road is needed to build a water treatment plant and access jobs, schools and emergency services.

Joy Smith, a retiring Conservative MP, said that the reserve's MP, Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford, phoned her on Monday morning to commit funding for the roadway's construction.

That would be funding beyond the $1 million in design costs that Rickford pledged during a visit to the community in June.

"The province and city committed $10 million each, but we didn't have a commitment [federally]," Smith said in a Monday phone interview. "Today, there was an official statement from Minister Rickford saying we support the construction of Freedom Road in principle, and that's why we're funding the design of Freedom Road."

Added Smith: "We've taken a step forward today. I'm very pleased the minister has made a statement saying he supports the construction."

But hours after that interview, Smith told CBC's As It Happens program she had "misspoken" and that Rickford's commitment was "in principle" only -- not a pledge to cover construction costs.

Smith's office declined a follow-up interview to clarify what Rickford told her, but sent a press release attributing a quote to the minister: "We support the construction of the freedom road in principle," he stated. "That is why we are funding the design of the freedom road."

Confusion over pledge

Shoal Lake 40's Chief Erwin Redsky also said that he received a phone call from Rickford on Monday morning saying that the federal government would pitch in one-third of the road's construction costs. Redsky added that Rickford specified Ottawa would pay for the third of the project located on reserve lands, within federal jurisdiction.

"He called me earlier this morning," Redsky said in an interview on Monday. "He said they are committing to the construction of Freedom Road in principle, which is the same commitment we have from the City of Winnipeg and from Manitoba -- a third of what is estimated at $30 million."

Requests for clarification to Natural Resources Canada were forwarded to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, which declined to comment, instead emailing a statement from Rickford's June announcement.

Requests to Rickford's re-election campaign were declined and forwarded to the Conservative Party of Canada campaign, which did not respond by Tuesday morning.

Based on his phone call with Rickford, Chief Redsky said he remains confident there is a federal commitment for road construction, despite speculation over whether any money had been pledged Monday.

"This issue was never a political or election issue for us," he said. "It's always been a matter of survival for our community."

Smith said she first raised the First Nation's struggles with Rickford after hearing constituents' concerns and her recent visit to the community. She believes her lobbying had an impact, but denied that her speaking out represents a rift within her former caucus or breaking ranks upon her retirement from politics.

"Why would it be a rift in the Conservative government when you bring an issue up?" she asked. "It's not a rift -- I made a request and it was listened to."

Smith said she'll keep pushing to ensure Shoal Lake 40 finally gets a road, and that whatever government is elected in October will start construction after the designs are finished next year to "make sure it's carried though in 2016."

"It costs more money to patch up bad situations than it does to build a road," she said. "Fiscal responsibility is very important, but our first job as a government is to ensure the safety of Canadian citizens. Being isolated, not being able to get to doctors or kids not being able to get to school -- that's not safety."  [Tyee]

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free.


The Barometer

Tyee Poll: What Needs to Be Done to Decriminalize Poverty in Canada?

Take this week's poll