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This article was published 10/8/2015 (685 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
After a Tory MP went rogue, the federal Conservatives have agreed a highway to Shoal Lake 40 First Nation ought to be built, ending the band’s century of isolation.
Calling it "the right thing to do," outgoing Conservative MP Joy Smith called on the Harper government Monday morning to build the highway, dubbed Freedom Road, and to fund one-third of its cost. Moments after her news conference ended, Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford, also the Conservative MP for Kenora, called to tell her he’d committed in principle to build the road once the design study is done.
"We support the construction of the Freedom Road in principle," Rickford said in a statement released by Smith. "That is why we are funding the design of the Freedom Road."
But, the commitment came without mention of federal funding. The city and province have each pledged to pay for a third of the $30-million highway.
Still, Smith declared victory.
"It’s done," said Smith.
Flanked by musician Steve Bell, one of the organizers of the Churches for Freedom Road awareness campaign, Smith said she was moved by the plight of the First Nation and its isolation, which stymies economic development, makes it hard to cope with medical emergencies and forces children to attend school off the reserve.
"Today, I’m calling on my government to make a commitment in principle to the Freedom Road," said Smith, who toured the First Nation last week with Bell. "It is definitely the right thing to do."
Smith is the first Manitoba Conservative to publicly side with the isolated First Nation, which has been under a boil-water advisory for nearly 20 years even though it's the source of Winnipeg's excellent drinking water. The 27-kilometre road, planned to connect to the TransCanada Highway, will help end Shoal Lake 40s century-long status as an island, made so by a canal built to improve Winnipeg’s drinking water.
The Conservatives have refused to commit to the construction of the $30-million Freedom Road, though the city and province have pledged financial support. At an event at Shoal Lake in June, Rickford raised hackles when he would only reiterate a previously announced $1-million commitment for a design study.
Smith’s move puts her at odds with the Conservative Party of Canada in the midst of a federal election, and threatened to put pressure on other local Tories, including Jim Bell, to make their views on the issue known.
Smith announced her retirement from politics in January, leaving her suburban riding suddenly up for grabs. There, the Liberals and NDP are running strong campaigns against former Blue Bombers executive Jim Bell, who is running for the Conservatives in Smith's stead.
Asked why she didn’t raise the issue when she was in office, Smith said she was busy with her work on anti-human trafficking legislation and awareness. She said she didn’t fully understand Shoal Lake’s plight until Steve Bell brought it to her attention.
"When you elect people, don’t you want to elect people to try to make the world better?" she asked.
She brushed off suggestions that her statement would make life tricky for fellow Conservatives. Kildonan-St. Paul Liberal candidate MaryAnn Mihychuk dropped by the news conference, held at Smith’s constituency office, and Smith begged her not to make the issue a political football.
Both Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair have pledged financial support for Shoal Lake's highway.