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Canada Winnipeg has moral responsibility to build road for reserve: councillor

Shoal Lake 40 First Nation residents cross a bridge over a man-made channel made to support Winnipeg's water system which has cut them off from the mainland on Thursday, June 25, 2015.

JOHN WOODS/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Some Winnipeg councillors say the city has a moral responsibility to help build a road for a reserve that has been cut off from the mainland for the last century so that the Manitoba capital can have clean water.

More than half of city council travelled to Shoal Lake 40 First Nation on Friday to tour the reserve, which has been under one of the longest boil-water advisories in Canada.

The reserve, on the Manitoba-Ontario boundary, was isolated during construction of an aqueduct that carries water to Winnipeg. Clean water flows into the aqueduct and dirty water is funnelled toward the reserve.

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Coun. Jenny Gerbasi said the tour was powerful and she suggested that helping to build an all-weather road for the man-made island is would be an important act of reconciliation.

"We're the beneficiaries of the water. We have, if nothing else, a moral obligation to ensure that the people at the other end of the pipe are treated fairly and are given the chances that all of us have," she said Tuesday. "We need to address these problems."

The reserve has been without clean water for 18 years and without a permanent road, a water treatment plant would be prohibitively expensive.

In the summer, people on the reserve depend on a decrepit ferry, which failed government inspection this year. They use a treacherous ice road in the winter and people have died falling through the ice.

Health-care workers and ambulances won't risk going to the community and children have to leave the reserve to continue their education past Grade 8.

The City of Winnipeg, Manitoba and the federal government have split the cost of a design study for a permanent road, but the recently defeated Conservative government steadfastly refused to commit to help fund construction.

Pressure to construct what has been dubbed Freedom Road by reserve residents has been growing from business leaders, politicians, artists and activists. The city, province and prime-minister-designate Justin Trudeau have said they will pay for construction, which the reserve hopes can begin early next year.

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Coun. Cindy Gilroy said the plight of Shoal Lake 40 stems from a "shameful period of our history." With an all-weather road, she said, the reserve could retain more of its members and foster economic development.

"Winnipeggers don't understand that they haven't been paying for that water," she said. "Shoal Lake 40 doesn't get anything for that."

Premier Greg Selinger said the province is committed to the road and ready to help fund construction as soon as the design study is complete in January.

"Any activity that we can get going, we're willing to do it," he said. "We're ready to move."

After years of fighting for basic human rights, Chief Erwin Redsky said his people are finally feeling optimistic.

"There is a light at the end of the tunnel and that light is getting brighter each day," he said Tuesday. "It's been 100 years and we're looking forward to a new beginning."

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Coun. Ross Eadie said the road is just the start. The new federal government must ensure residents have access to clean water and proper garbage disposal, he said.

"We need to reconcile what we did to them."

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