What Freedom Road can teach Ontario about partnering with Indigenous communities

After 100 years, Shoal Lake 40 First Nation finally has an all-season connection to the rest of Canada. TVO.org talked with people involved in Freedom Road about how the model could work for other infrastructure projects
By Jon Thompson - Published on June 24, 2019
Road sign that says: Freedom Road Project
Freedom Road, a 24-kilometre route that links Shoal Lake 40 First Nation to the Trans-Canada Highway, opened in June. (Jon Thompson)

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In 1919, Winnipeg opened an aqueduct that carried clean water from Shoal Lake, just east of the Manitoba-Ontario border, 150 kilometres to Manitoba’s capital. To build it, governments expropriated the traditional territory of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation and relocated its members to a nearby peninsula that was then severed from the mainland, leaving them isolated on a man-made island.

Their only access to the rest of Canada came via a barge across the channel in the summer or ice roads in the winter. Attempts to walk on the ice during the freeze and thaw have sometimes proved deadly: nine people are known to have fallen through and drowned.

One hundred years later, the community of about 300 people finally has an all-season connection to the mainland: early June marked the opening of a 24-kilometre road that links Shoal Lake 40 First Nation to the Trans-Canada Highway. They named it Freedom Road.

Kenneth Redsky’s cousin died making the crossing before the road was constructed; he himself has fallen into the frigid lake.

“We’re free,” the Shoal Lake 40 resident said at the celebration for the road’s completion. “Since I was a little kid, I’ve been hearing about Freedom Road. I’m 49 now and, finally, I have a road.”

The project was the result of an eight-year effort involving multiple groups and jurisdictions. Dubbed the Freedom Road model, it required co-operation between Winnipeg city hall, Manitoba, the federal government, Shoal Lake 40, nearly 20 other First Nations, and the International Joint Commission, which negotiates disputes involving bodies of water sitting on both sides of the Canada-United States border.

The framework may soon be used again: for a decade, a plan to twin the stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway between the Manitoba border and Kenora has been held up by the Indigenous consultation process. Now Shoal Lake 40 and three other First Nations have approached the Ontario government to propose adopting the Freedom Road model. Bob Nault, the Liberal MP for Kenora, says that “Shoal Lake 40 has shown us the way.”

TVO.org spoke to people involved with Freedom Road about what the rest of the province can learn from the project.

Erwin Redsky, Chief of Shoal Lake 40

For Shoal Lake 40 chief Erwin Redsky, the Freedom Road model provides a new blueprint for communication and co-operation between First Nations and federal and provincial governments.

“If you’re going to shove consultation down our throats, it ain’t going to happen,” Redsky says. “We’re way beyond consultation. Shoal Lake 40 is about true partnership.”

At Redsky’s request, the federal government allowed the First Nation to act as the project’s proponent and lead the planning. Shoal Lake 40 hired engineers to help design the route and contractors to construct the road; it arranged a labour force, relying largely on local companies. Much of the road is made of rock extracted from the route itself. Shoal Lake 40 also led consultations with the almost 20 other First Nations whose traditional lands might be affected.

“We’ve been waiting for opportunities for a long, long time. We’ve demonstrated that with Freedom Road,” Redsky says. “We’re just one community, but there are 633 First Nations in this country, and they can do the same.”

Eric Christiansen, Freedom Road Working Group, Manitoba Infrastructure lead

Eric Christiansen sat on the Freedom Road Working Group — created as a result of the tripartite agreement between Manitoba, Winnipeg, and Shoal Lake 40 — from 2011 until his retirement in 2017. For Christiansen, the lasting lesson has been the importance of flexibility.

During his tenure, election cycles brought new leadership to Winnipeg’s city hall, Manitoba’s provincial government, and the federal government. Though Christiansen was never concerned about the project’s future, he says that each new leader brought “a bit of a different focus.”

“By the time funding was in place, someone else’s had expired,” he recalls. “We had to work with the system and know who to talk to at the right time to move something through.”

While First Nations have in the past acted as project proponents with the federal government, the approach was a new one for Manitoba. Whenever possible, Shoal Lake 40 worked to simplify the process. For example, the province is legally required to consult with area First Nations — such consultations, Christiansen says, can be labour intensive and time consuming. So Shoal Lake 40 did the groundwork with neighbouring communities, turning what could have been a challenging political process for the government into a matter of simple paperwork.

“Having the First Nation there as the proponent and the benefactor for the project helped,” Christiansen says. “The communities understood the importance to Shoal Lake 40 of having this road.”

Daryl Redsky, leader, direct-action campaign

When the Canadian Museum for Human Rights opened in Winnipeg in September 2014, Daryl Redsky pitched a teepee on the lawn and protested. Redsky (no relation to Erwin) had been tasked by the chief with forming a direct-action strategy — he was to publicize the plight of Shoal Lake 40 through public demonstrations.

So he crossed the provincial border to cause a stir. The water coming out of the museum’s drinking fountains, he pointed out, came at the expense of the human rights of Shoal Lake 40 residents. His community, the water’s source, was in the midst of an ongoing boil-water advisory and relied on bottled water for drinking.

“It’s different if you have a group of angry Indigenous people trying to express themselves,” he says. “But if you shift that responsibility back to the settler community and make them aware of what the responsibility is, that pressure is directed not from us but from their constituency.”

Redsky also coordinated with Shoal Lake 40 leadership to open a “living museum” they called the Museum of Canadian Human Rights Violations. On tours of the First Nation, community members talked about the toll the aqueduct had taken on their lives. Environmentalists, human-rights advocates, and officials from the Winnipeg museum made the trip to see for themselves.

Winnipeggers found the case compelling. By December, hundreds were demonstrating outside Manitoba’s legislature. More than 100 local churches took up the cause.

A successful direct-action campaign, Redsky says, takes skill and foresight: “It requires a lot of work, and you need key people to organize and get things going. Things didn’t just fall out of the sky and happen. It took coordination and planning, and it takes some experience. My hair wasn’t grey.”

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