Road to isolated Shoal Lake First Nation a long-awaited step in tangled history

Previous proposals to solve access and water issues at Shoal Lake 40 First Nation on the Manitoba-Ontario border have fallen to political ambivalence and self-interest.

Political ambivalence, self-interest have delayed remedies for Shoal Lake 40

Shoal Lake 40 residents have relied on bottled water since December 2000. (John Bronevitch/CBC News)

The Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, on the Manitoba-Ontario border, is finally getting its road, a step toward ending years of isolation.

Sources of have told CBC News the indigenous affairs minister, premier of Manitoba, mayor of Winnipeg and chief of Shoal Lake will announce their co-operation on the construction of a $30-million access road, dubbed Freedom Road, at a news conference this morning in Winnipeg.

Construction is planned to begin in early 2016, with the approximately 26-kilometre road to be completed in 2017.

A century ago the community was left isolated by the construction of the intake of Winnipeg's water system. Today that isolation has also left the community without clean drinking water of its own.

In recent years, that bitter irony has generated considerable public and political support for the First Nation.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger and Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman have all said there is a moral obligation to rectify the situation.

While the deal to construct a road has been decades in the making, this isn't the first time there has been an attempt at a solution.

Information obtained by CBC News, including federal ministerial briefing documents, illustrates how political ambivalence and the interests of two First Nations have delayed a remedy.

Water source for Winnipeg

In the early 1900s, Winnipeg, then Canada's third-largest city, was booming and in need of a reliable source of clean water.

Shoal Lake on the Ontario-Manitoba border was identified as both safe and geographically accessible via the construction of 135-kilometre aqueduct running downhill to the city of Winnipeg.
Shoal Lake 40 First Nation has dubbed its new connection 'Freedom Road.' (Jaison Empson/CBC)

In 1915, the City of Winnipeg got approval to draw water from Shoal Lake from the Ontario government.

With little regard for the area's indigenous inhabitants, land was expropriated from what is now the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation for the construction of a water intake, which required digging a canal that cut off the community from the mainland.

Shoal Lake 40 First Nation has been on an island ever since.

Just 15 kilometres off the Trans-Canada Highway, today it remains accessible only by boat in the summer and an ice road in winter.

For decades, Winnipeg fought all efforts to build a road to Shoal Lake, fearing development would threaten its water supply.

The resulting isolation has made the cost of building a water treatment plant prohibitive.

While the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation sends water to Winnipeg, it's been on a boil-water advisory since December 2000.

A bridge not built

That could have changed in 2001, as the then Liberal federal government proposed to build a bridge from Shoal Lake 40 to the mainland through the neighbouring Iskatewizaagegan First Nation (also known as Shoal Lake 39).

Not wanting a public right-of-way through its lands, Iskatewizaagegan First Nation voted against it, killing the bridge proposal. (Iskatewizaagegan did not respond to an interview request)

Iskatewizaagegan First Nation has since imposed tariffs on anyone trying to reach Shoal Lake 40 through its lands, via ice road or ferry.

In 2003, Shoal Lake 40 turned its attention to the building of a road that would bypass Iskatewizaagegan First Nation entirely.

Over the next few years, it began negotiating with the federal government — first the Liberals, then the Conservatives — for a deal on a proposed $30-million road.

An engineering firm identified four different routes and a preferred option was presented to the Conservatives in 2007. Two years later it was denied over "a lack of sufficient environmental information," according to federal documents.

Shoal Lake and its engineers disputed that assessment, but started over, ultimately selecting the current proposed Freedom Road route.

In 2013 Manitoba and the City of Winnipeg each committed $1 million to the design of Freedom Road.

The federal government made a similar commitment a year later, but unlike Manitoba and Winnipeg, it did not express a commitment to construction.

Briefing notes obtained by CBC News that were prepared in May 2015 for former aboriginal affairs minister Bernard Valcourt say that a "formal funding commitment was unachievable" and that the department was looking to find other sources of funding through other government programs.

During the fall 2015 election the Liberals committed to funding construction.

Clean water delayed

Much of the attention now being paid to Shoal Lake 40 focuses on how it provides water to Winnipeg, but has no water treatment plant itself.

Federal documents show taxpayers have spent at least $1.3 million since 2000 to provide the community with bottled water.

As negotiations over the road dragged on, the Conservative government did make an offer to address the issue of clean water in 2010.

It approved $9.2 million for the construction of a water treatment plant to be built on lands shared by Shoal Lake 40 and Iskatewizaagegan First Nation. An agreement over land use and joint-governance of the facility couldn't be reached.

Like the bridge proposal, federal documents say Iskatewizaagegan First Nation struck the shared treatment plant down.

Ottawa then deemed the $13.7-million dollar cost of building a treatment plant on land owned by Shoal Lake 40 too expensive, deferring funding until after 2015.

It also recommended Shoal Lake 40 and Iskatewizaagegan First Nation mediate a solution.

Neither community has agreed.

Shoal Lake 40 has not reapplied for funding, pending a deal to build Freedom Road.