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This First Nation Is Crowdfunding to Build an Access Road Because the Federal Government Won’t Pony Up Enough Cash

Shoal Lake 40 has been under an 18-year boil-water advisory. The feds are only willing to kick in $1 million in design costs for the $30-million project.
July 3, 2015, 8:37pm

Shoal Lake residents protest the federal government's approach. Photo via DAILY VICE

A Winnipeg man has started an all-or-nothing fundraising campaign with a goal of $10 million to build an access road for the isolated community of Shoal Lake 40 after the federal government declined last week to commit a third of the $30 million it would take to build "Freedom Road."

The access road for Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, which sits on a man-made island that straddles the Manitoba-Ontario border, would make it cheaper and easier for residents to access health care and build a water treatment plant.

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The community of about 250 people has endured a boil water advisory for the last 18 years with no end in sight. Eczema and rashes are common for residents who wash with chlorinated but otherwise untreated water pumped from the surrounding lake. Everyone in Shoal Lake 40 relies on deliveries of bottled water for drinking.

Following a lacklustre announcement last week by Federal Minister of Natural Resources Greg Rickford reiterating a promise of $1 million toward the design of Freedom Road, Winnipeg resident Rick Harp launched a fundraiser to raise the $10 million the community was hoping to receive from the federal government.

The fundraiser has attracted $42,000 since Monday, with donors giving about $100 each on average.

Harp told VICE he started the campaign after hearing about "the sheer disappointment that the community of Shoal Lake 40 experienced after they found out the news that the federal government would not be contributing its share of the cost for building Freedom Road for the community."

When he heard the news, Harp said he felt disgusted and outraged. He decided to start a fundraiser both to provoke awareness and possibly raise enough money to complete the road, which is already under construction.

VICE travelled to Shoal Lake 40 last week to hear the announcement. Shoal Lake 40 residents told VICE they hoped the $30 million cost would be split between the three levels of government.

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At a much-anticipated announcement last week, the City of Winnipeg and the government of Manitoba committed to partly fund the access road. However, Rickford committed only $1 million toward the design of the road.

"I'm pleased to announce that the Government of Canada will invest $1 million in support of the design—not the study, not the proposal, but the technical design of the Freedom Road," Rickford told the community.

His speech disappointed some members of the community since it was a re-announcement of a previous commitment. Meanwhile, the federal government plans to spend $100 million to twin the Kenora-region Trans Canada Highway, which touches the First Nation's traditional territory.

When VICE questioned Rickford about his announcement, he refused to answer questions and stuck to talking points.

The community has no paved or gravel roads, sketchy access to health care, and its ferry—a lifeline between the mainland and the island—broke down earlier this year, prompting the Chief to declare a state of emergency. The ferry has since been fixed, but there are no plans to replace it. When VICE travelled to Shoal Lake 40 last week, residents told us the First Nation has been compared to a "third-world country."

A century ago, the City of Winnipeg expropriated the First Nation's land and dug a canal that cut the community off from the mainland. Last week, the City of Winnipeg committed 100 percent of funding toward a permanent bridge across the canal.

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Winnipeg residents, including Harp, enjoy treated, drinkable water that the city diverted from Shoal Lake 40 when it created the canal.

"I'm almost 50, and so my entire lifetime times two has seen Shoal Lake 40 suffer with no access to drinking water that I get to enjoy every single day without thinking about it," Harp told VICE.

Before starting the campaign, Harp reached out to Shoal Lake 40 Chief Erwin Redsky to ask his thoughts.

The chief's response, posted on the crowdfunding page, questions why Shoal Lake 40 "must depend on the kindness of strangers."But he told Harp if his efforts miraculously succeed, he can be assured the funds will go toward the road.

VICE asked Harp why he would start an all-or-nothing campaign rather than a campaign that would see any funds earned go to the community. He answered that an all-or-nothing campaign would raise awareness and "has it's own unique dynamic that really triggers something in people."

Reached by phone Tuesday, Redsky called last week's announcement "an emotional day" and "a speed bump," but said he appreciates Harp's efforts to raise money for his community.

"Any kind of support we get, we really appreciate it," Redsky said. "You know, the awareness part of things, and the campaign has caught a lot of attention, and if it catches more attention that's what we're really happy about. Whether we raise $10 million or not is not an issue for me, but it will be a bonus if we do. But again, Canada created this problem and Canada needs to come up with a solution."

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter.