Construction is underway on the first leg of an all-season, two-lane road that will eventually link the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation community to the Trans-Canada Highway in southeastern Manitoba.
The isolated community is on a manmade island and residents have relied on a barge in spring, summer and fall, or an ice road or bush trail in winter for access to the mainland in Manitoba.
"Accessibility is definitely a challenge on this project," says builder Bryan Razmus. "You very quickly gain an appreciation for what the Shoal Lake 40 community and other remote communities like it go through on a daily basis in transporting basic necessities to their homes, never mind the large pieces of heavy construction equipment we needed."
Razmus is a project manager with Winnipeg-based Sigfusson Northern Ltd., the general civil contractor for 8.8 kilometres from Shoal Lake 40 – a community of several hundred residents - to the reserve border. Construction began in May with completion of the two-lane compacted gravel road on time to meet the October deadline.
The second phase of the project, consisting of about 15 kilometres of road and bridgework to the Trans-Canada Highway, has yet to be called. Sigfusson Northern will bid on the tender package when it is released, Razmus says.
Completing the 24-kilometre Freedom Road will "fast-track" needed infrastructure projects in the community, such as a water and sewage treatment plant.
"They have been under a boil-water advisory multiple times for decades," Razmus says, noting that transporting fresh drinking water from the mainland has been costly for locals.
The road could also bring other projects to the isolated community, including a proposed school and additional housing.
Razmus says prior to starting the first phase of road construction, the contract required "a substantial amount of planning," largely to calculate equipment and supply needs.
Over a clear-cut frozen "winter trail" in March, the contractor moved heavy equipment, including rock trucks, tandems, 350-tonne excavators, several dozers, light support equipment and a six-trailer camp complex for workers. Also transported was several hundred thousand litres of additional fuel, calculated on equipment burn rates and project duration, he says.
The work crew of 40 includes 22 residents from Shoal Lake 40.
Razmus says the alignment moves through various ground conditions, from wetlands to bedrock at grade.
The rock is "metamorphic and basalt...a very coarse rock adding challenges to drill/blast and crushing operations."
Some of the stretch will be realigned and a "well-travelled" community road will be upgraded as part of the builder's contract.
"Maintaining access for local community members and working safely in these areas isn't so much of a challenge, but definitely a priority," he says.
Since he started work on the reserve, Razmus has come to appreciate the struggles faced by the remote community and how important the two-phase link will be.
"It will provide them with all-season access to resources, opportunities and regions they otherwise wouldn't have without it," he adds.
The two-phase project, worth about $30 million, is funded by the City of Winnipeg, the Province of Manitoba and the federal government.
In 2011, a proposed water treatment plant was abandoned by the federal government because of the high cost and the community then proposed the all-season road.