Shoal Lake 40 First Nation straddles the Ontario-Manitoba boundary and was carved off from the mainland a century ago to build an aqueduct which supplies fresh water to Winnipeg. The reserve has no all-weather road and has been under a boil-water advisory for 17 years.
The community's only ferry failed a federal inspection last week and was taken out of service. Chief Erwin Redsky, who declared a state of emergency, says that without the aging vessel, people have no way to get groceries, water or immediate medical help.
"Everything from the delivery of water (to) health services are in jeopardy," he said Monday. "People are very, very frustrated and very inconvenienced. We've never experienced this before. We're trying to deal with it the best way we can."
The community received an emergency shipment of bottled water on the weekend and has enough to last another few days, Redsky said. A repair crew is looking at the ferry to see if it can be patched up enough to pass federal inspection later this week.
But even if the ferry is made seaworthy again, Redsky said it is only a stop-gap measure. Every year, people trying to get to their homes fall through the ice because there is no safe road.
Paramedics and home-care workers won't come into the community — either by ferry or on the ice — for safety reasons, he said.
"The long-term solution is, of course, a road — Freedom Road."
The City of Winnipeg, Manitoba and the federal government have chipped in for a design study for an all-weather road, but there is no commitment to build anything beyond that.
A spokeswoman for federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said the department's emergency management is "in regular contact with the community."
"We continue to offer assistance should the community require any. So far, no requests have been made," Andrea Richer wrote in an emailed statement.
"We are also working with the First Nation and Health Canada to ensure that residents have access to medical services. We will continue to stand ready to provide any assistance necessary."
Green party Leader Elizabeth May called the situation intolerable. She wants the federal government to immediately restore ferry service to the community and help build an all-weather road. After a century, May suggested, the community deserves justice.
"Every community across Canada has a right to safe drinking water," she said in an interview. "But this situation, where they are both physically isolated and don't have safe drinking water, is appalling.
— By Chinta Puxley in Winnipeg
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