Road work is continuing on Hghway 673 near Shoal Lake #39 First Nation – a necessary step to start work on the twinning of Highway 17 later this fall.

“We are right there,” says Kenora-Rainy River MPP Greg Rickford, in an interview with Q104 and KenroaOnline late last week. “I’m very optimistic about a start very soon, and I’m very optimistic about a twinned highway from Manitoba into Kenora within the next couple of years.”

“We’re very pleased as a starting point that we’re straightening and resurfacing the road into Shoal Lake #39 and we’re staging that area for the transformation and the twinning. I’m looking forward to an exciting opportunity this fall,” adds Rickford, who notes the first phase of work would take place between the Manitoba Border and Highway 673. 

When the original project was announced over a decade ago, the federal and provincial governments each set aside $50 million for the project. The funds were announced by former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Rickford – while he was a federal MP for the Kenora riding.

The initial $100 million announced in 2009 was spent on twinning a highway east of Thunder Bay in 2017 due to a lack of action on the local twinning project. The Ontario Conservatives later put funding back in for the project in their 2019 Spring Budget.

“It’s been a long time coming,” adds Rickford, who also serves as the Minister of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry, as well as the Minister of Indigenous Affairs.

“The previous provincial government didn’t appear to have much of an interest in it, hadn’t worked with the Indigenous communities very closely, and the next thing you know, that $100 million went out to the Nipigon stretch and other twinning projects across the province,” said Rickford.

Shoal Lake #39, or Iskatewizaagegan #39 First Nation, along with the Four Winds Partnership of Washagamis Bay, Wauzhushk Onigum, Shoal Lake #40 and the Dalles, gave Ontario their conditional consent to start the twinning work earlier this year, as long as Ontario honours a set of commitments.

Discussions on the project have surrounded the Manito Aki Inakonigaawin, or the Great Earth Law, as well as the twinning project’s Harmonized Impact Assessment. The HIA was developed by the Four Winds partnership, which brings cultural teachings and science together to assess the impacts of new developments.

Chiefs and councillors from the Four Winds signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the provincial government to move forward with the twinning work in February 2020, after forming the partnership in 2018.

Rickford, said he expected work to begin on the project after signing the MOU in February 2020, but said COVID-19 was a major contributing factor to the delays.

However, while work on the first phase of the project is now expected to begin this fall, the Four Winds partnership has yet to give consent to Phase 2 or Phase 3 of the twinning project. That work includes twinning between Highway 673 and Rush Bay Road, and between Rush Bay and Highway 17A.