OTTAWA — The Pallister government says its major anti-flood project in the Interlake region will be completed around fall 2025, if it soon clears federal and Indigenous requirements.
"The province of Manitoba has moved heaven to push this project forward — it is up to the federal government, and our Indigenous partners, to allow us to move earth," Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler told reporters Wednesday.
He was giving an update on the $540-million Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin outlet channels, for which Ottawa has committed roughly half the cost.
The project has been stymied by errors in the province’s regulatory submission, and disputes over how much consultations are required with Indigenous groups.
Schuler said those issues are being worked out, and construction could start as soon as this fall, if the province secures all environmental permits by then. It will then take four years to build, he said.
Until last fall, Premier Brian Pallister was highly critical of the federal Trudeau government for designating the project as requiring significant consultations with Indigenous groups, including ones far downstream.
The province had resisted in-depth discussions with many of those communities until about a year ago.
Schuler said Ottawa has been collaborative in getting the project through its environmental review, which has involved multiple clarifications and tweaks.
"We have been very pleased with the working relationship we have with our federal government," he said.
Many Indigenous leaders have accused the province of not consulting, by telling them plans instead of negotiating issues such as how to assess the impact of construction on wildlife.
Yet, Schuler said the project is proceeding well, despite the COVID-19 pandemic drawing out the consultation process.
He noted the province changed its hydraulic structure, after local bands argued the narrow stretch of Lake St. Martin would allow water to pool and overflow in its south basin. Before that change, First Nations argued the channel would disrupt ancestral graves and fish-spawning grounds.
Manitoba is also delaying its heritage-excavation work until after the environmental permits are granted, after demands by Indigenous groups.
Some disputes persist. A court rejected a challenge by Interlake chiefs to delay the building of a construction road, which is still pending an appeal. Schuler said the province is proceeding as normal until a court orders it not to.
Meanwhile, the Pallister government and the Manitoba Metis Federation continue to accuse each other of not being in contact over Métis concerns around the outlet channels, such as whether linking bodies of water will hurt fish stocks.
NDP Indigenous affairs critic Ian Bushie argued the project would be further ahead if the province had worked earlier with Indigenous communities and Ottawa, instead of being "ineffective and mismanaged."