New road links isolated First Nation to mainland for 1st time in 100 years

For the first time in 30 years, Shoal Lake 40 First Nation has voluntarily dry-docked its aging ferry — with no intention of ever using it again now that there is a permanent road linking the community to the rest of the country for the first time in 100 years.

The reserve, situated on the Manitoba–Ontario border, has since 1990 relied on the barge ferry to transport residents across the 100-metre-wide channel of water between their island and neighbouring Iskatewizaagegan First Nation (also known as Shoal Lake 39) on the mainland.

People were often left stranded due to the ferry’s frequent breakdowns, and it wasn’t even in operation during the winter, when residents instead used dangerous ice roads that claimed several lives over the years.

But this week, Freedom Road, the 24-kilometre all-season road winding through the Canadian Shield and forest lands and around wetlands, will officially open. A four-day gathering, with a formal dedication and celebration planned, begins Monday.

“This road means everything to us. It’s going to change everything here in this community,” said Erwin Redsky, who was chief of Shoal Lake 40 from 2002-06 and has been in the post again since 2010.

“It’s been a long, hard battle just to get access to this community. But all of that changes now.”

Shoal Lake 40 was turned into an isolated chunk of land in the early 1900s when the City of Winnipeg constructed its aqueduct to deliver water from the reserve’s namesake lake to the city.

A channel was cut through the First Nation’s land, disconnecting it on the west side. To the north, south and east, the land was surrounded by Shoal Lake.

Residents had to cross the lake to get their mail and groceries in Shoal Lake 39 or to get to Kenora or the Trans-Canada Highway, and to get back.

“We have to trespass our neighbouring community’s reserve land for us to get home,” said Redsky.

And despite all the water around it, the reserve has been under a boil-water advisory since 1997 due to bacterial contamination in the lake. It has had to haul in its water supply via the unreliable barge.

When the barge was out of service for extended periods, the community’s water supply would run dangerously low. Tom Anderson, an elder and former councillor, said the reserve had been spending up to $150,000 annually to import drinking water, while the barge was costing between $140,000 and $200,000 annually to maintain and operate.

“That’s the cost of a house. So all the years we’ve had it, we’ve lost [the opportunity to build] a house,” he said.

“Now we don’t have that cost on us so we can start to replenish our housing stock.”

In fact, the community has already built two new houses since last winter because it knew it would no longer have the expense of starting up the barge this year, said Anderson.

“So the barge is officially retired — and if anyone’s interested, it’s for sale,” Anderson said.

In 2001, the federal government proposed building a bridge between the two Shoal Lake reserves, but Iskatewizaagegan voted against it, not wanting a public thoroughfare.

So in 2003, Shoal Lake 40 focused instead on getting a road across the channel on the west side of the reserve to link with the mainland and up to the Trans-Canada Highway.

It wasn’t until 2016 that the province of Manitoba, the City of Winnipeg and the federal government reached a three-way funding agreement to build the $30- to $40-million permanent road.

Construction began in 2017 and is nearly complete — the road is getting the finishing touches but is usable. It’s the first time in history that Shoal Lake 40 residents were able to avoid being stranded during the fall freeze or the spring thaw, which both make the water impassable.

“It’s called Freedom Road for a reason: It’s going to create that freedom of movement [regardless of the time of year]. It’s just going to change our lives,” Redsky said.

Emergency responders can now reach the community; liquid and solid waste can be transported out instead of dumped in designated areas on the land; health services off-reserve can be accessed; and building materials can now be brought in.

Ainsley Redsky, a niece of the chief, said she’s looking forward to attending powwows in other communities and not having to dash out early to catch the barge, which stopped operating each night at 11 p.m.

“Now we can go home whenever we want,” she said.

A new school is being planned and a long-awaited water treatment plant is coming, expected in 2021.

“We’ve been ignored for the past 100 years, but now we’re getting road access and the opportunities that brings. We’re basically rebuilding our community here,” said Chief Redsky.

That includes economic development. A team is working on potential projects both in Shoal Lake 40 and where Freedom Road meets the Trans-Canada, Redsky said.

“Ten thousand vehicles are going by daily on a busy summer so we want to capture some of that activity out there,” he said.

“We’re seeing visitors that we had never seen ever before, and we want to invite … people to come and see our community.”

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