A 100-year struggle comes to an end in Shoal Lake, as the City of Winnipeg begins construction of a bridge to the First Nation.

Winnipeg deputy mayor Mike Pagtakhan will join Chief Erwin Redsky on Thursday for a historic sod turning ceremony on the Shoal Lake Band No. 40 First Nation. Municipal Government Minister Drew Caldwell and Greg Rickford, the federal minister of natural resources, will also be in attendance.

The sod turning marks the beginning of construction on a new permanent bridge, paid for by the City of Winnipeg, that will pass over the Falcon River Diversion Canal. 

The man-made waterway was constructed approximately 100 years ago to facilitate an aqueduct which still provides drinking water to Winnipeg.

The canal's construction effectively cut off access to a section of the First Nation, forcing residents to cross the water on a regular basis.

City of Winnipeg map of Shoal Lake bridge

This topographic map shows the location of a permanent bridge to be built by the City of Winnipeg in Shoal Lake. (City of Winnipeg)

Redsky says it has been a "long struggle" for his community to deal with the consequences of living on a man-made island, accessible only by a temporary bridge or boat.

"We want to honour, acknowledge all the work for the past 100 years, including all the leaders that fought this battle," he told CBC in advance of Thursday's ceremony.

Cuyler Cotton, a policy analyst for Shoal Lake Band No. 40, says it is time Winnipeggers understand where their drinking water comes from.

"Winnipeg has yet to look in the mirror and appreciate that literally the water you drink, people have died in it," he said.

'A bridge to nowhere'

Cotton said because the community is surrounded by water, ambulances have not be able to reach the First Nation. He added that drowning deaths occur in the canal, which residents have to cross to collect mail or buy groceries.

In a tragic turn of irony, the canal also prevents the Shoal Lake First Nation from building an economically viable water treatment plant. As a result, Shoal Lake has been under a drinking water advisory for over 17 years.

Thursday's sod-turning event will shine a spotlight on the new bridge, but both Cotton and Redsky are reticent to celebrate just yet.

"This is a bridge to nowhere," said Cotton. "The solution is to build a road to the west, and that is Freedom Road."

The First Nation hopes the federal government, along with the city and the Manitoba government, will build a gravel road that will link the new bridge with the Trans-Canada Highway.

The bridge that the City of Winnipeg is building is, however, an essential first step to that goal.

"At least it will be possible that there will be some hope for the future," said Cotton, "Right now there is none."