City committee OK's $1M funding for Shoal Lake road design

The drive to build a permanent road for Shoal Lake 40 First Nation received a $1 million boost on Wednesday.

All-weather road expected to cost $30 million, shared by 3 levels of government

Shoal Lake 40 residents have dubbed a road, carved out of the wilderness and used when frozen during winter, as Freedom Road. In spring and summer, however, it is an impassable muddy mess. (Chinta Puxley/Twitter)

The drive to build a permanent road for Shoal Lake 40 First Nation received a $1 million boost on Wednesday.

The City of Winnipeg's executive policy committee approved the funding for design costs of what's been called Freedom Road. City council must still vote on the plan.

The reserve on the Ontario-Manitoba boundary was cut off from the mainland a century ago during construction of an aqueduct that sends fresh water to Winnipeg.

In summer, residents depend on an aging ferry to get to the mainland, but the vessel isn't always reliable. In winter, they cross on the ice, but people have fallen through and died.

The lack of road access makes building and maintaining a water treatment plant more costly, so Shoal Lake has been without potable tap water for 18 years.

The reserve has lobbied for what residents call their Freedom Road for years, and pressure has been growing from business leaders, politicians, artists and activists.

An all-weather road is expected to cost $30 million, with funding from all three levels of government.

The city, which shares the same water source with the Shoal Lake 40 and Shoal Lake 39 First Nations, says the Falcon River — which has "darker"-coloured water because it flows through peatlands — flows to the First Nation "with or without the diversion."

A city spokesperson told CBC News that the water is not polluted, and tests in Shoal Lake show "excellent" water quality.

"The plan was to consume the water without treatment, so the clearer lake water was preferred. The darker river water is diluted in the lake and does not affect the colour of the lake water," the spokesperson said in an email.

"However, 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."