A crowdfunding campaign is underway to pay Ottawa's portion of an all-weather road for a reserve under one of the longest boil-water advisories in Canada.
The fundraising campaign, on Fundrazr.com, began Monday and quickly took off on social media, garnering support from author Margaret Atwood and others. In less than 24 hours it had raised more than $13,000.
Organizer Rick Harp hopes to raise $10 million in 60 days to pay the federal government's share of a permanent road for Shoal Lake 40 First Nation.
"People want to have an immediate way to make their voice heard," said Harp, who lives in Winnipeg. "They want this to happen."
The reserve, which straddles the Ontario-Manitoba boundary, was cut off from the mainland a century ago to build an aqueduct which supplies Winnipeg with fresh water. The community has lived under a boil-water advisory for 17 years due to a dam which funnels tainted water away from the aqueduct and towards the reserve.
Without a permanent road, residents rely on an aging barge in the summer and a treacherous ice road in the winter. Every year, people fall through the ice trying to make it to their front door.
Residents were left in tears last week when Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford, who is also the local MP, visited the reserve, but refused to commit to seeing a road built.
Both Manitoba and Winnipeg have said they will pay for one-third each of the road's construction if Ottawa kicks in its share of the total estimated cost of $30 million.
Harp said the fundraiser is a way for people — especially those who have enjoyed the reserve's water for a century — to show their support for the First Nation and let the federal government know how they feel.
"There could not be a better opportunity for Winnipeggers to reconcile with the people of Shoal Lake by helping them to do this," he said. "It's literally and figuratively a way for Winnipeggers to honour a debt 100 years in the making."
A spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said he wasn't available to comment. In an emailed statement, Emily Hillstrom declined to comment on the fundraising effort and reiterated the government's $1 million investment in a design study for a road.
"Once the design is complete, and all costs are known, discussions about federal funding for the construction of the road can take place," she wrote.
Chief Erwin Redsky, of Shoal Lake 40, said the community was devastated last week when the Rickford simply reiterated the federal government's support for a design study instead of agreeing, in principle, to see the road built.
At the same time, the government has promised to spend $100 million to expand the Trans-Canada Highway which runs through Shoal Lake 40 territory.
People who have lost faith in the federal government have felt heartened reading the comments on the Fundrazr page, Redsky said.
"We're very pleased there are people out there, in Winnipeg and across Canada, that are concerned," he said. "We're overwhelmed by the response and we hope that our goal, our dream is realized soon."
Residents say an all-weather road — dubbed Freedom Road — would mean a water treatment plant and economic development could become a reality. People are leaving the community because they don't see a future, Redsky said.
"For 100 years, Shoal Lake 40 has been a model of the broken relationship," he said. "Shoal Lake 40 can be a model of that new relationship, that new reconciliation that needs to take place."