Manitoba Conservative MP Joy Smith is backtracking on remarks she made Monday when she said the federal government is committing $10 million to build a permanent road linking Shoal Lake 40 First Nation with the mainland.
The Kildonan-St. Paul MP, who is not seeking re-election in the upcoming federal vote, had said Ottawa is committed to fund construction of what's known as Freedom Road, which would bridge the island community on the Manitoba-Ontario border with the Trans-Canada Highway.
The cost for Freedom Road is an estimated $30 million, split between three levels of government. The City of Winnipeg and the Manitoba government have committed to their part but the federal government has not.
Smith initially told CBC's As It Happens and Radio Noon programs that she learned of the government's support after she held a news conference on Monday morning, urging the Conservatives — specifically, Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford — to fund construction of the road.
"The province committed to $10 million. The city committed $10 million. You know, this is what I was calling on our government to do,'" Smith said Monday afternoon.
"Greg Rickford called me just a short time ago and said, 'Yes, the government was going to do that.' So I'm waiting for his confirmation and I thanked him very much for doing that."
A short time later, Smith told As It Happens she had misspoken and said Rickford is not promising any new funding for construction of Freedom Road. The minister has only agreed to its construction "in principle," she said.
During a visit to the First Nation in June, Rickford pledged $1 million toward a design study for the Freedom Road project but refused to commit funds toward construction.
Shortly after Smith's news conference, the Conservatives issued a statement reiterating that it will pay $1 million toward a design study for Freedom Road.
Rickford's campaign manager told CBC News the minister spoke with Shoal Lake 40 Chief Erwin Redsky about the project on Monday.
"He spoke to the chief this morning and reiterated our government's support for the project in principle, which has always been the case demonstrated by the fact that we've invested in the design of the project," the manager said.
When asked if that commitment in principle is based on payment for the study, the campaign manager said that was correct.
Under boil-water advisory for 18 years
Shoal Lake 40 was cut off from the mainland a century ago when an aqueduct was built to supply Winnipeg with fresh water.
Ironically, the First Nation has been under a boil-water advisory for the past 18 years because murky water flows into the community.
The City of Winnipeg, which shares the same water source with the Shoal Lake 40 and Shoal Lake 39 First Nations, says the Falcon River — which has murky water because it flows through peatlands — flows to the First Nation "with or without the diversion."
"Originally, the plan was to consume the water without treatment, so the clearer lake water was preferred. The natural outlet of the Falcon River was very close to the planned aqueduct inlet, so the river was diverted to a different part of the same lake," a city spokesperson stated in an email late Monday.
Joy Smith says she'll personally call PM Harper to advocate for Shoal Lake 40 First Nation #cbcmb— @anishinaboy
Joy Smith says she was moved by a recent trip to Shoal Lake 40 First Nation— @anishinaboy
Smith said Shoal Lake 40 needs permanent infrastructure that would allow its residents to enter and exit the community year-round.
"A commitment by the federal government to partner with the City of Winnipeg and the Province of Manitoba to build the Freedom Road, would accomplish this," she told reporters from her office on Henderson Highway in Winnipeg.
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Cuyler Cotton, a policy analyst for the band, has told CBC News in the past that because the community is surrounded by water, and served by a ferry that can break down at times, it is difficult for ambulances to get there.
He added that drowning deaths occur in the channel, which residents have to cross to collect mail or buy groceries.
Building a permanent, all-weather road would not only provide reliable access to the mainland, it would also allow the community to build an economically viable water treatment plant.
On Monday, Cotton told The Canadian Press the federal government has not put anything in writing. He also said the agreement to fund a design study falls far short of a commitment to build the road.
"The fear is, it is meaningless," he said.
The design of the road is scheduled to be completed by next year. There is no timeline for the construction of the road.
'We need that commitment,' says member
"We have a solution sitting right in front of us and, you know, we need that commitment," Shoal Lake 40 member Sharon Redsky said Monday.
"I know that everybody wants to do the right thing and the government can do that."
Smith's support for Freedom Road, which came after she visited the First Nation recently, was met with skepticism from MaryAnn Mihychuk, the Liberal candidate in Smith's riding.
"The fact that it took her 10 years to make a trip to Shoal Lake makes you wonder where she's been for the last 10 years," Mihychuk said.
Fellow Liberal Robert-Falcon Ouellette, who is running in the Winnipeg Centre riding, agreed that Smith should have said something earlier.
"It is unfortunate that Joy Smith, a Conservative MP who is not running for re-election, did not take the opportunity to speak up on the issue while she was in government," his campaign stated in a news release.
Smith said she will use the time she has left in office to urge Conservative Leader Stephen Harper to make the Conservatives' commitment to Freedom Road more concrete.