Residents of a First Nation under one of Canada's longest boil-water advisories wept Thursday after the federal government refused to commit to help fund the construction of a road connecting the community with the outside world.
Both Manitoba and the city of Winnipeg announced a commitment Thursday to fund part of the cost of a permanent, all-weather road for Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, which straddles the Ontario-Manitoba boundary.
But Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford refused to say whether Ottawa would put up its share of the cost during a ceremony on the reserve and left community members openly sobbing with disappointment.
Instead, he reiterated the federal government's $1-million pledge to a design study for the project.
"We've made a clear commitment today," Rickford, the MP for the area said, as children holding signs asking for a federal commitment to build the road walked behind him. "I have no further comment."
When asked if he had anything to say to the children about the road, he said: "Hi guys."
The reserve was cut off from the mainland a century ago when an aqueduct was built to supply Winnipeg with fresh water.
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While clean water flows down the aqueduct, murky water is diverted to the First Nation. It has been under a boil-water advisory for 17 years and has no all-weather road connecting it to the mainland.
Rickford left the announcement while Stewart Redsky wept in frustration as he spoke to people gathered in the community.
"For 100 years, Shoal Lake 40 First Nation has had to pay so Winnipeg could get fresh water," Redsky said. "Our people need an answer today. Our people deserve an answer today."
The community's problems got worse earlier this year when its aging ferry didn't pass federal inspection. The reserve — with no way for people to get groceries, water or immediate medical attention — declared a state of emergency.
The ferry has since been patched up but the community remains vulnerable.
Every year, people trying to get home fall through the ice. Paramedics and home-care workers won't come into the community for safety reasons. An all-weather road, named Freedom Road by residents, would cost an estimated $30 million split between three levels of government.
Redsky said many people in Shoal Lake 40, including his teenage grandson, have lost hope in Canada.
"It breaks my heart," he said.
Chief Erwin Redsky said a design study isn't enough. The reserve has several design studies dating back a decade for water treatment plants that have never been built.
At the same time, the federal government has said it will spend $100 million to twin the nearby Trans-Canada Highway across the provincial boundary.
"Canada is not going to get four lanes thorough our territory if we're not going to get our road. I made that clear to the minister today," he said.
Without a road, there is no hope for a water treatment plant or economic development, he said.
"People are leaving," he said. "People can't live under these kinds of conditions."
Tap water on the reserve is drawn directly from the polluted lake and treated with chlorine.
But Kavin Redsky, who has been treating the water for 12 years, said there is no filtration system so sediment and weeds often come out the taps.
"We're not even supposed to brush our teeth with the water," he said. "We don't get a treatment system unless we get the road."
Manitoba Municipal Government Minister Drew Caldwell said the province is committed to seeing the road built and will wait for Ottawa to do the same.
"Until there is a definitive no, I always assume the answer is going to be yes."