A road project that aboriginal people on the east side of Lake Winnipeg have been dreaming about for decades is starting to take shape.
Premier Greg Selinger announced Tuesday the provincial government will spend $72.5 million over the next year to begin building a 160-kilometre permanent link from Manigotagan to Berens River. It’s the first leg of a long-term project to connect the region’s 36,0000 residents with the south at a cost of billions of dollars.
First Nations say it’s about time Ottawa stepped up to the plate with funding to speed up the process.
Grand Chief David Harper, who represents 30 northern Manitoba First Nations, said Tuesday if governments can spend $6 billion on the Vancouver Olympics, they can spend a couple of billion to build permanent roads linking the east side communities.
“This is more feasible. We’re here to stay and people will use that road for a long time. And it’s going to benefit not only Manitoba, but Canada.”
Selinger told reporters Tuesday he would welcome federal help building an east side road, but the province isn’t prepared to wait—especially with the limited success in recent years of winter roads to isolated communities. This year, the winter roads melted well before most of the communities had received necessary supplies. They’re now looking at Ottawa to airlift those goods.
“We’d be thrilled to have the federal government involved in this, but we’re not going to sit here and say, ‘After you, Alphonse.’ We’re not going to wait until you come on board to get started,” Selinger said.
Road building is expensive. Selinger said the first 160 kilometres to Berens River will cost between $300 million and $500 million, depending on the final design. The road could be completed by 2014, if Ottawa chips in some cash.
Harper said the federal government will hear from him now that the province has got the project rolling. “Obviously, we’ve got to take them to task now.”
Selinger said provincial officials believe they can make a good case for federal involvement in building the road. “We’ve raised it and discussed it with them. Once we get a detailed design finalized, we’ll invite them to participate on the specifics.”
A spokesman for federal Transportation and Infrastructure Minister John Baird said Manitoba has had opportunities to apply for federal funding over the last few years, but has failed to do so.
James Kusie said in an email late Tuesday the provincial government was told it could apply for federal funds under a couple of different programs, but has so far chosen different projects.
“The Government of Canada indicated early on that the all-season roads would qualify under our Building Canada Plan. However, Infrastructure Canada never received a request from the province for funding of this initiative under any of its programs,” Kusie said.
In addition to providing building materials and food to the isolated communities, the road might also open up tourism opportunities for the area. Harper said mining companies are interested in the possibilities raised by a regional road network, although he did not elaborate.
The province said other benefits of an east side road network will include improved access to emergency, health and social services and better links between communities within the region. Residents will have greater mobility and they’ll have more economic opportunities.
Ernie Gilroy, CEO of the Manitoba Floodway and East Side Road Authority, said the funding will allow the project to “hit the ground running” once the road receives environmental approval later this year.
Why build an east side road network? Because 36,000 Manitobans on the east side of Lake Winnipeg are reliant on increasingly fragile winter roads, and the only alternative is to airlift supplies.
What was announced Tuesday? A provincial commitment of $72.5 million this year to complete the detailed design and begin building bridges and culverts at 21 river crossings and 45 streams on the first leg of the road—a 160-kilometre stretch from the end of Provincial Road 304 to Berens River.
What has been done so far? Mainly road design work and environmental impact studies. The province created the East Side Road Authority, an arm of the Manitoba Floodway Authority, to carry out the project. It has signed community benefits and job training deals with several First Nations, who will have a hand in building the road and are stockpiling gravel in anticipation of the start of construction. Work is also being done to make the current timber road passable from Manigotagan to 14 kilometres south of Bloodvein.
What about the future? The province is waiting for the completion of a study that will recommend an all-season route linking the whole region. Officials won’t hazard a guess yet about the cost, but it would be in the billions of dollars.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2010 A8