Shoal Lake 40 chief calls for immediate construction of Freedom Road after barge breaks down

The Chief of Shoal Lake 40 is in Winnipeg to call on the federal government to support immediate construction of a road that will provide access to his community, a day after the only way in and out — a barge — broke down.

Shovels can hit the ground for portions of the road

Shoal Lake 40 Chief Erwin Redsky will meet with representatives from federal, provincial and municipal government in Winnipeg on Monday to discuss Freedom Road. (CBC)

The chief of Shoal Lake 40 is in Winnipeg to call on the federal government to support immediate construction of a road that will provide access to his community, a day after the only way in and out — a barge — broke down.

At least 30 people were left stranded on the mainland from 11:30 a.m. Friday until early Saturday morning when the barge stopped working on its way to pick them up.

Community members worked through the night to ensure everyone made it home, or off of the man-made island community, by walking across the newly-formed ice.

"It's just really tough when your only lifeline breaks down like that, with no notice, it's pretty tough for all of us," said Chief Erwin Redsky, who is in Winnipeg for a Monday meeting with municipal, provincial and federal government representatives.

He added community members were given notice yesterday that it was the last day the barge would run for the season. As a result, many planned to leave the community to stock up, but couldn't.

"That's the way it is with Shoal Lake 40. We're in survival mode this time of the year," he added.

Shoal Lake straddles the Manitoba-Ontario border and has a population of about 700 people.

The community has been cut off from the mainland for nearly a century after the construction of an aqueduct to bring fresh water to Winnipeg. It has no clean drinking water of its own, and has been under a boil-water advisory for the past 19 years.

Without the barge, the community is completely isolated until the construction of winter ice roads that will last until spring.

"We're always in crisis at this point. We're not out of the woodwork yet, until the ice is safe to travel on. We're going to work on the winter road immediately and prepare that through the west," he said. 

"We're all on edge right now but we're a close community," he added.

A barge that acts as a lifeline broke again on Friday, leaving several residents stranded. (Linda Redsky/Facebook)

Meeting Monday with three levels of government

On Monday morning, Redsky will meet with Mayor Brian Bowman and members of the provincial and federal governments to discuss what has become known as Freedom Road.

Last year, the three levels of government promised $30 million to the construction of the 24-kilometre stretch that will connect Shoal Lake 40 First Nation to the Trans-Canada Highway.

But when the Progressive Conservative government took power in Manitoba, things changed. Premier Brian Pallister has been firm on his party's commitment to build the road, but the financing of the project is still the subject of negotiations between the province and the federal government. 

Designs were approved in November and are undergoing an environmental review, and Pallister has said construction will begin in February.

But Redsky says when it comes to the portion his First Nation is responsible for, they're ready to build.

He's calling on the federal government to support and fund immediate construction on that chunk.

"I think we're done with words and promises, I think it's time for action. I know the First Nation has a plan moving forward and we hope the federal government supports us to start building immediately with the all weather road. That's one of the things we'd like to see on Monday," said Redsky.

Redsky said he had hoped to bring the community's elders to the meeting but didn't want to risk their lives crossing the lake after the barge broke down.

"Three pieces of the puzzle, we want to complete our piece and work with our partners to move forward immediately. No more words, no more promises, let's get on the ground and let's get 'er done. This winter. That's my hope."

He believes construction of the road will prevent further dangerous situations like Friday's.

"You see young families out there, bringing their kids home or taking groceries and bringing groceries back, it's really challenging and difficult. But we survive and we're in survival mode right now," he said.