SHOAL LAKE, Ont. – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hauled large jugs of drinking water and spoke with school children Thursday as he was immersed in the daily struggles of an isolated reserve that has been under a boil advisory for 19 years.
Trudeau spent seven hours on Shoal Lake 40 First Nation — a man-made island near the Manitoba-Ontario boundary, cut off from the mainland a century ago during construction of an aqueduct that carries fresh water to Winnipeg.
“It was an extraordinary day. It was a day for him to see and feel it, our daily struggles here,” Chief Erwin Redsky said afterward.
The visit was deemed a private one, closed to all media outlets except Vice Canada, which is shooting a documentary on the tour.
Trudeau hopped onboard a truck used to haul 20-litre jugs of water and delivered them to three homes, Redsky said. He visited every classroom in the local school, talked to elders and later watched a hockey game at the local arena.
The federal government, along with Manitoba and the City of Winnipeg, recently committed to building an all-weather road that will connect the community to the Trans-Canada Highway. The reserve is not remote — it’s less than an hour away from Kenora, Ont. — but it has been isolated economically and in terms of basic services by the lack of a dependable roadway.
The few hundred residents use an aging ferry to access health care, shopping and other necessities in the summer and a treacherous ice road in the winter. People have died falling through the ice. A road will also make construction of a water treatment plant affordable.
An investigation by Global’s 16 x 9 looked at the quality of the water and spoke with professor Eva Pip, from the biology department at the University of Winnipeg who has been studying water quality in Shoal Lake and the surrounding rivers and bays for decades.
Her studies showed not only harmful parasites and bacteria in the water, but also the potential for toxins to be produced from blue-green algae blooms that could be potentially fatal if the toxins are at a high enough concentration.
Redsky said he was not looking for any new specific promises from Trudeau, just a commitment to an improved relationship with First Nations. He said Trudeau gave him a firm promise “to be a full partner in our treaty relationship.”
A permanent road was originally estimated to cost $30 million but that has been revised to $46 million after a detailed design study.
With files from Global News’ Riley Martin.