Anyone reading the words of outgoing Conservative MP Joy Smith yesterday could be forgiven for thinking the federal government has committed funding toward Shoal Lake 40's access road, also known as Freedom Road.
Not so, I'm afraid. It appears Smith confused her own party's spin with a promise to fund the road.
The First Nation that straddles the Manitoba-Ontario border has been on a boil water advisory for the past 17 years, and has been pushing for all three levels of government to split the cost of the $30-million access road so they can build a water treatment plant and have better access to the mainland. They already have funding commitments from both the municipal and provincial governments, so a federal funding commitment would be a big deal.
On Monday, Smith said she had spoken to the MP for the area, Minister for Natural Resources Greg Rickford, and he told her over the phone the federal government had committed funding for Freedom Road—leading to optimistic Canadian headlines. But later in the day, Smith walked back her comments, saying she was mistaken about the funding promise.
When VICE asked her exactly what Rickford told her, she read from a press release that did not match her previous comments: "He said, 'We support'—this is his direct quote—'We support the construction of the Freedom Road in principle.' He said, 'That is why we are funding the design of the Freedom Road.' What is your email? I'll send you his exact quote."
When I asked her if Rickford had told her they would commit $10 million to the access road, she replied, "No. No. No."
"You see when you do a design study, and I could see why, in a sense, because you know you might commit $10 million, usually it costs $1 million a kilometre to build a road, usually. Now the city and the province committed to $10 million, but there's no dollar commitment because what if the design comes out as more expensive? You know, you never know. But what was needed was the commitment in principle to construct the road."
Immediately following Smith's comments, Rickford's staff put out the one-line press release declaring support for the road's construction, in principle.
But Rickford has been careful not to commit funding for the road's construction. During a highly-anticipated announcement on June 25 in the Shoal Lake 40 hockey arena, Rickford reiterated a previous promise that the Conservative government would commit $1 million toward the road's technical design. He then ignored reporters' questions about whether he would commit the $10 million the First Nation is asking for.
VICE was there to hear his announcement. His exact words were:
"I'm pleased to be representing the government of Canada and in particular my colleague Minister Valcourt, the minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, to announce that the Government of Canada will invest $1 million dollars in support of the design—not the study, not the proposal, but the technical design of the Freedom Road... I'm also happy to acknowledge the commitment of our partners in this joint venture for $1 million dollars apiece for the design phase. This is the basis for establishing the cost associated with the construction of the project, and once those costs are determined the discussion regarding the funding of that road can take place. This design phase, ladies and gentlemen, is an important step, a milestone in development of Freedom Road, the all-weather, all-season road linking Shoal Lake 40 First Nation community to the Trans-Canada Highway."
After his announcement, a construction worker who had stopped work on Freedom Road to hear the minister's announcement leaned toward me and said Rickford's announcement was "a slap in the face."
At first, Rickford ignored reporters and walked away when we asked for comment. He walked toward his wife and picked up one of his young children, who let out a wail in front of the cameras.
In response to questions about the road he said, "You're scaring my children, if you don't mind."
Repeated calls from VICE to Rickford's campaign went unanswered Monday and Tuesday.
Smith interpreted Rickford's new comment as different from his past statements: "Once you make that statement, then after 2016 [when the design study is finished] then you have to support the construction of the road. There's nothing really that would hold him back. But the number is not on there though, and I can see why."
Smith said she had been told not to talk about Shoal Lake 40 during the election.
"I know some people told me not to say anything during the election, I said, 'No no no, you just need to do it, election or not. We just need to get this done for the sake of the community.'"
When asked who told her not to talk about it, she said, "Well you know, just some of my friends who I was talking to them, you know, when you talk to people they said, 'Oh why worry about this?' And I said, 'Yeah it's a big worry.' And so, yeah, I just came to the forefront with it."
Though it's a local issue that affects a small community, the access road has ballooned into an election issue.
Following a crowdfunding effort for the road, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau said, "Around Shoal Lake, simple answer: yes. A Liberal Party will step up and do its share."
Kenora Liberal contender Bob Nault, who is running against Rickford, also said, "Our commitment today is clear: A Liberal government would build the Freedom Road."
NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has also implied support for Freedom Road.
"This should go beyond [the] election," Smith told VICE. "Anyone who makes an election issue out of this needs to be examined. This is an issue about people who are hurting, and people who are needing to have this road."
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