The province and First Nations groups took the first step Thursday on an ambitious plan to build an all-weather road system through a wilderness area the size of England on the east side of Lake Winnipeg.
The huge area is home to about 22 communities—many of which are the most isolated in the country. The people who live there have waited more than a decade for a more reliable and economical way to travel other than winter roads and aircraft.
“If they can build Confederation Bridge over the ocean we can build this,” Oxford House Bunibonibee Cree Nation Chief Bailey Colon said. “There’s no reason it can’t be done.”
Construction of the road up the east side of Lake Winnipeg will start this year with the upgrade of Rice River Road from Hollow Water to Bloodvein about 90 kilometres to the north.
The next stage will extend the route further north to Berens River by 2013.
What happens next is up to First Nations and the Manitoba Floodway Authority (MFA), which will be given legislative blessing to move from upgrading the floodway to managing construction of the road system. Legislation was introduced Thursday.
“The residents cannot be asked to wait any longer,” MFA chief executive officer Ernie Gilroy said, adding many of the communities are socially and economically disadvantaged.
Infrastructure Minister Ron Lemieux said consultations are already underway to select the best routes which will in time connect Little Grand Rapids to the east and Island Lake to the north with other communities.
“Communities will be consulted on the final route,” Colon added. “That will be written in stone.”
The province has budgeted $27 million towards the early stages of the project and expects that costs will escalate as the road pushes through swampy terrain and bridges have to be built over rivers.
Lemieux said the big question is whether Ottawa will contribute funding. “Is the federal government going to be a partner with us?” he said.
He and Culture, Heritage and Tourism Minister Eric Robinson said the road system will also open up the area for aboriginal-led development such as in mining and tourism.
Many of the communities are already connected by an extensive winter road system, but Colon said that system of trucking in goods like fuel and groceries is getting more expensive and less dependable with climate change and shorter winters. In milder winter goods have to be flown, which is extremely costly.
Robinson, the area’s MLA, said comparisons will be wrongly made by critics that if the province is allowing roads to be built, why doesn’t it allow a new hydro-electric transmission line be built down the east side of the lake. The Doer government has picked the more costly option to build the massive line called BiPole III down the west side of the province in a bid to preserve the boreal forest as an United Nations for world heritage site.
Robinson and Lemieux said a hydro line does not provide any permanent benefit to the people in the area, including electricity, while a road allows them easier access to go shopping or make doctor’s appointment.
“This region is probably the most isolated and most costly in terms of food,” Robinson said.
Late last year the province introduced legislation giving the region’s bands unprecedented power to plan and manage their traditional lands. It would specify what kind of development—roads, logging, mining, lodges—can go on what land and what areas should remain untouched.