The twinning of Highway 17 from Kenora to the Manitoba border is expected to begin this fall, after a sacred ceremony confirmed commitments from local communities and the provincial government on Friday.

“I’m proud. Today is a historic event. We used our customs, our Anishinaabe way, our teachings and our ceremonies. This was the largest concentration effort ever done in the Treaty #3 territory,” said Grand Council Treaty #3 Ogichidaa, Francis Kavanaugh, who thanked the Four Winds partnership and their communities for their ongoing work and lobbying to get the project started.

The Four Winds partnership combines Treaty #3 leaders from Washagamis Bay, Wauzhushk Onigum, Shoal Lake #40 and the Niisaachewan Anishinaabe Nation, or the Dalles community, to understand the impacts of twinning Highway 17 to their traditional lands.

The group gave Ontario conditional consent to move forward with twinning Highway 17 between Kenora and the Manitoba border earlier this month, on the condition that Ontario honours legally binding commitments the group has set.

A sacred, virtual ceremony held Friday confirmed the party’s consent to the work. It began with a traditional opening from Elder Terry Skead and drummers, and was hosted by Elder and Protocols Advisor George Kakeway.

“Under our laws, our ceremonies, we do things right. We are never afraid. We take our time and we always listen, and that is what we did,” said Kakeway. “It is our consideration of the proposed project, done in our way and according to our laws. This document is the result.”

''The ceremony was held virtually on April 30. 

“By entering into ceremony with us today, [the Ministry of Transportation] is demonstrating that it is possible for us to work together. While we still have a very long way to go, we know we can make the journey together,” said Chief Chris Skead of Wauzhushk Onigum First Nation, who adds Elders have given MTO staff moccasins to remind them of their combined journey.

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.

“From time immemorial, our Elders have relied on the Manito Aki Inakonigaawin – our Great Earth Law to guide decisions in our territory,” explained Dalles Chief Lorraine Cobiness. “When we follow the laws of the Earth, the laws of the Creator, when we make decisions through ceremony, we know these are good decisions.”

“Our process, where, as partners we all share responsibility, has produced several innovative, creative ways of working together in a continuing relationship. We’ve conducted a groundbreaking, award-winning harmonized process for understanding environmental impacts and mitigation measures,” said Chief Vernon Redsky, Shoal Lake #40 First Nation. “We have revived a process that we know works, an Anishinaabe approach we have always known can work for the benefit of all.”

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. The signing took place during a celebration at the Wauzhushk Ongium Round House.

“The past relationship was very destructive. It did not work for anyone. It has left generations of damage. But we have now followed our laws, and done things our way, with our principles”, said Chief Marilyn Sinclair of Washagamis Bay First Nation. “When we conduct ourselves with respect, honour, love, courage, humility, wisdom, and truth, we know we can have good outcomes”

Kenora-Rainy River MPP and Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Energy and Northern Development and Mines, Greg Rickford, said he expected work to begin on the project after signing the MOU in February 2020, but noted COVID-19 was a major contributing factor to the delays.

“I have spent much of my political career focused on getting the Highway twinning underway and knowing that we have the support of our Indigenous peoples and the Four Winds group in the region is an incredible step forward in moving on with the project - I am also looking forward to finalizing plans for work to begin on Highway 673 for the people of Shoal Lake 39 Community - Iskatewizaagegan”, said Rickford. 

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.

''Courtesy of the Four Winds Partnership. 

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.