Northwestern Ontario residents can look forward to a fully-twinned Highway 17 from Kenora to the Manitoba border by about 2025 – if everything goes to plan for the provincial government and community partners.

“We have the next phase locked down. I’m just so excited. It’s been 14 years in the making. [I’m] so grateful for the partnerships that we have now,” said Kenora-Rainy River MPP Greg Rickford, in an interview with Q104 earlier this week.

Rickford joined Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney and community partners at the Ontario/Manitoba border last Friday to sign contracts with Indigenous partners to produce the raw materials needed to build the road base, including tree and brush removal work.

Phase one of work will take place between the 6.5 kilometre stretch from the border to the junction of Highway 673 and the TransCanada, and is set to begin this Spring.

Rickford, who also serves as the Minister of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry as well as Indigenous Affairs, says all three phases of the project could be wrapped up by 2025.

“I’m hopeful,” said Rickford. “I think we’re looking at the next couple of years, maybe as far our as four years, to twin it all the way out to Kenora. Some would say it’s a little more. It’s likely not less – it’s a fairly substantial legacy piece of work. I think we’ll see it sooner rather than later.”

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 – when 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.

Rickford’s been involved in the project for over 14 years now, and the workload could only continue to increase. The Minister says Ontario is still discussing further twinning work into Manitoba, where the twinned highway would eventually switch back to a single-lane highway.

“I understand that that wasn’t a priority for Premier Brian Pallister,” explains Rickford. “But Premier [Heather] Stefanson loves our lake, and she understands what a bottleneck that would become. It would certainly be nice if that whole stretch would be done. I’m pretty certain we’ll meet in the not-so-distant future to discuss that.”

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 their set of commitments.

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.

While work on the first phase of the project is now expected to begin this Spring, 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.