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The Newest Government Promise To Fund A Bridge To Shoal Lake 40 Causes More Confusion

The Canadian government says it's only committing "in principle" to building a much-needed bridge to the island First Nation of Shoal Lake 40.

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The Conservative government says it will help build a desperately needed bridge to a Manitoba First Nation, but won't promise to dole out the required cash — yet.

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Shoal Lake 40, an island on the Manitoba-Ontario border, has been under a boil water advisory for 18 years, one of the longest in Canada. Its residents have spent a century in isolation, ironically cut off from the mainland by a canal built to provide Winnipeg with drinking water.

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In June, the First Nation's former chief wept when Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford refused to commit to any federal funding to building the bridge, dubbed "Freedom Road."

Rickford, whose riding includes the First Nation, said the government was only promising to fund part of a design study, not its $10-million third of the the cost of construction.

The municipal and provincial governments have already committed $10 million each.

On Monday, Tory MP Joy Smith — who's not running for re-election — released a statement, along with musician Steve Bell, saying her party needed to do more.

"Shoal Lake 40 needs to have permanent infrastructure that allows its residents to have year round entry to and exit from their community," Smith said. "A commitment by the federal government to partner with the City of Winnipeg and the Province of Manitoba to build the Freedom Road, would accomplish this."

Shortly after, her office released another statement, saying the problem was essentially solved: Rickford, her caucus-mate, had just phoned Smith and "confirmed" that the federal government was committing "in principle" to helping build Freedom Road.

I am thrilled fed gov has committed, in principle, to partnering with MB & Winnipeg in the construction of #FreedomRoad to #ShoalLake40.

But in an email to BuzzFeed Canada, Smith said Rickford knew the day before that she would be releasing the statement.

Chris Wattie / Reuters

"I invited him to the press conference and talked about the issue for over an hour with him the day before," she said.

Smith told the CBC that the commitment from Rickford meant the federal government would provide its third of the $30 million needed to build the bridge.

But then she backtracked, saying the government wasn't committing to a dollar amount.

The Conservative government isn't promising the $10 million yet because the figure could change, Smith told BuzzFeed Canada.

"The design process may reveal increased or decreased costs to build the road so committing a dollar amount at this point is not useful," she said.

Asked what a commitment "in principle" means, Smith wrote: "It's good to have an acknowledgement that after the design process there is a commitment by the federal government to build the Freedom Road."

Natural Resources Canada directed questions about the project to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. It responded with a link to Rickford's June announcement.

Meanwhile, the Tories spent much of the spring and summer announcing billions of dollars in funding for other projects.

In one week alone before the federal election was called, the Conservative government announced a total of $4 billion in funding, including $30 million to light up two Montreal bridges for Canada's 150th birthday.

For some, the fear is that the Tories won't follow through on their promise to help build Freedom Road.

@LoopEmma In principle isn't good enough. And needs to be twinned with potable water - 17 yr under boil water!!! #cdnpoli

Not worth the paper it's written on .. #CPC #promise #in_principle #ShoalLake40 #FreedomRoad #elexn42 #cdnpoli @GregRickford @LoopEmma

Cuyler Cotton, a policy analyst for Shoal Lake 40, told The Canadian Press that nothing about the construction of the bridge has been committed in writing.

"The fear is, it is meaningless," he said.

Emma Loop is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.

Contact Emma Loop at emma.loop@buzzfeed.com.

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