The last financial hurdle for Freedom Road has been cleared, paving the way for construction to start.

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The last financial hurdle for Freedom Road has been cleared, paving the way for construction to start.

The federal government has agreed to increase its share of the cost to build a road that would link the isolated Shoal Lake 40 First Nation to the Trans-Canada Highway.

Chief Erwin Redsky told reporters Monday the federal government agreed to double its share of the cost, to $20 million.

"We’re finally, finally going to build Freedom Road," Redsky said to supporters outside city hall after he met with Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman and Eileen Clarke, Manitoba’s minister of indigenous relations.

Shoal Lake 40 is located southeast of Falcon Lake, straddling the Manitoba-Ontario border. The community was cut off from the mainland in 1917 when a nearby channel was cut to facilitate a diversion and construction of the aqueduct that supplies drinking water to Winnipeg. The 300 residents must use a ferry to get to the mainland during summer, and an ice road is constructed in winter. The quality of their water is poor: they have been forced to boil their water for 18 years.

Redsky emerged from the meeting to say the project will start immediately. A winter road will be built, allowing heavy equipment to reach the community in order to begin construction of the 24-kilometre Freedom Road.

"We’re not just building a road," Redsky said, "Today is a very exciting day for myself and my community," he said. "I want to thank everybody from the bottom of my heart.... We’ve got hope now, hope to rebuild our community (and) reconnect to Canada."

He said the vital link will allow the community to prosper.

In 2013, the Manitoba and Winnipeg governments each promised to pay $10 million to construct the permanent road. After the federal Liberals won office in 2015, they promised $10 million.

Construction was delayed after cost estimates jumped to as much as $50 million from $30 million.

The election of the Tories in Manitoba in April added to the uncertainty because the $10 million was promised by the defeated NDP government.

The three levels of government began negotiations on who would pay the increased cost.

Last month, federal Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett expressed frustration, saying the deal was one-third each, which "I think personally, it is pretty straightforward."

The Liberals were under increasing pressure to get the road built. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to the community, which was profiled in a documentary last April, added more heat, as it also became a project he personally had committed to get done.

Redsky said Bennett told him Sunday her government would chip in an additional $10 million.

She issued a statement Monday: "Our government is fully committed to supporting Shoal Lake 40 First Nation in the construction of Freedom Road. The road will provide residents with increased mobility and help unlock economic opportunities for the community."

Bennett said work has started to "quickly advance construction of the on-reserve portion of the future access road."

Redsky said he’s confident the road can be built for $40 million.

A large section of the road is on provincial Crown land and is in the final stages of an environmental assessment. A bridge on city land is at a similar stage.

"The significance of where our water comes from is not lost on Winnipeggers," Bowman said. "Every time we turn on our tap... it comes from Shoal Lake."

Clarke said Ottawa’s new funding pledge ensures construction can start in weeks.

"We now have a funding agreement that has been agreed to by all funding partners," she said.

"Manitoba Infrastructure… is preparing a tender so that they can move forward very quickly."

While the Manitoba government will build the road, the community will be given a long-term contract to maintain it, she said.

Before the meeting began, Redsky met with the 30 supporters, known as Friends of Shoal Lake 40, in the city hall courtyard, and thanked them for their encouragement.

While the political leaders met inside a city hall boardroom, supporters were kept outside. City hall security would not allow the group to enter the building to warm up.

— with files from Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

aldo.santin@freepress.mb.ca