Shoal Lake 40 First Nation is finally getting road access to the community after three levels of government announced $30 million in funding Thursday.
By building a road to the isolated First Nation, on the Ontario/Manitoba border, three levels of government are building a path to reconciliation, said the reserve's chief, Erwin Redsky.
He made the observation on Thursday morning at the Manitoba's legislative building, where key players gathered to share their thoughts and plans to build what has come to be called Freedom Road; a 24-kilometre stretch that will connect Shoal Lake 40 First Nation to the Trans-Canada Highway.
The community was left isolated a century ago by construction of the intake for Winnipeg's water system, and has no clean drinking water of its own. The community has been under a boil-water advisory for the past 18 years.
One of Shoal Lake's elders, Bob Blackhawk, opened the announcement with a prayer.
"We're finally going to have a road; a freedom road, they call it," he said.
"My wife died almost three years ago now … She always talked about this road there. She always said, 'I hope I see that road. I hope I drive on that road, too.'"
The community's chief, Erwin Redsky, was the first to speak following the prayer.
"[More than] 100 years ago, the thousands of acres of land taken was our land … without our permission. The consequences … began what the Canadian Museum for Human Rights described as a cascade of human rights issues, including our [18-year-long boil water advisory]," he said.
"But today's a good day."
A Canadian story
Redsky went on to emphasize the importance of focusing on the future, rather than the past.
"Our stories are not local … It's a Canadian story," he said.
"It's important we acknowledge and honour those who have brought us to this present opportunity for reconciliation."
An honour song was then played by traditional drummers to acknowledge those who have made a contribution to the road, including Winnipeggers who, Redsky said, educated themselves about their water supply.
Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger spoke after the song, noting that he has been in touch with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who, he said, has agreed to support the road and make a contribution.
Canada's Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett was at the legislative building on Thursday, too. She acknowledged that access to Shoal Lake 40 First Nation has been "unreliable," and reiterated her support for Freedom Road, calling herself the minister of reconciliation.
"It's time to put words into action and I was very touched by the words that it is the road home for so many Winnipeggers and so many people who contribute not only to this city and province, but to this country," she said.
Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman was one of the last to speak, saying it was an emotional day.
"This is absolutely historic and something I know many people have fought for and championed for quite some time," he said. "We are truly in this together … Creatively, we can ensure great things for shoal lake … and the people of Winnipeg."
On Thursday afternoon, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the need for the road has come up for the last few months as a "real initiative."
"There's a broad need for investment for infrastructure; for support for moving toward parity so that people — particularly young people living in First Nations, Metis nations and Inuit communities across this country — get the support that they need," he said.
"It's about doing the right thing, about doing the fair thing. And, that's what we're all about as we begin this new mandate."