Speeding up construction of a $1.4-billion all-weather road from Norway House to Island Lake is the best way to ensure thousands of First Nations residents get running water, their chiefs said Monday.
The chiefs from Wasagamack, St. Theresa Point, Garden Hill and Red Sucker Lake flew to Winnipeg for a news conference at the Island Lake Tribal Council office, where they joined Manitoba Grand Chief Ron Evans in calling on the federal government to help pay for the road. All plumbing and construction supplies now have to be brought in via an ice road that was open for less than four weeks this year.
"We need to expedite the road that goes into that region," Evans said, referring to the east-west route announced last week by the East Side Road Authority. A previous proposal for a road all the way up the east side of Lake Winnipeg was rejected because it would have been 168 kilometres longer.
"The province tells us that it would take 30 years... to build a road into that region if there's no federal support," the grand chief said.
He estimates that with federal help, the road could be built in less than 10 years. So far, the provincial government has committed $93 million -- with more expected in today's throne speech -- and the federal government has committed nothing.
Ten more years is a long time for families to wait when they're getting sick from overflowing outhouses and hauling water buckets from outdoor taps, so St. Theresa Point Chief David McDougall has started work on an emergency plan to protect the health of his people until multimillion-dollar piping can be installed.
He estimates that 364 outhouses need to be built on concrete pads in his community alone, and 314 water containers installed that hold at least the 350 litres per family per day needed to meet United Nations minimum health standards. Trucks would need to be bought and drivers hired to suck out sewage from the outhouses and deliver clean water.
McDougall said some homes likely don't have driveways usable by delivery trucks, so road access work would also be required.
None of that can be done within existing budgets, the chief said. He said First Nations are criticized for running deficits when they try to meet local needs with an inadequate budget, when Indian Affairs should instead be accused of running a humanitarian deficit.
That department directed questions by the Free Press to Infrastructure Canada. In an email, Infrastructure Canada said it has not received a formal request from the Manitoba government for funding for new all-weather roads for the Island Lake region. "While most Infrastructure Canada funding has already been committed under existing sources of funds, if a proposal is received, it will be examined in the context of available funding."
NDP MP Niki Ashton, who represents northern Manitoba, said she has raised the issue of roads to northeastern Manitoba numerous times in the House of Commons. She wondered why the federal government doesn't make a long-term commitment to an all-weather road instead of spending money every year on ice-road maintenance, flying in emergency supplies and medevacs. The road would also open up possibilities for economic development like mines and tourism. "The fact that we're able to send somebody to the moon 50 years ago just speaks to the imbalance when it comes to First Nations and not being able to build a road."
McDougall said it costs about $25,000 to connect each home to existing water lines from his community's treatment plant. He got plumbing only after his home burned down, making him eligible for a newer house. Garden Hill Chief Dino Flett is lucky enough to live on the side of town that got funding a few years ago for water hookup.
McDougall said he grew up in a family that managed to keep clean without running water by assigning all 11 kids chores. He said the unhealthy grime in some Island Lake homes is partly due to the "malaise" that sets in when people feel hopeless after generations of disruption by residential schools, adoption by outsiders and failed urban relocation programs.
As a former school principal, he believes in the power of education. "I've been trying to encourage people to look after a certain plot of land."
The chiefs thanked the Free Press for a recent series of articles drawing attention to the water and sewer problems in Island Lake.
"We are very much in Third World conditions back in Island Lake," McDougall said. "The rest of the country never knew about it."