OTTAWA – An Ontario aboriginal community on an island in the southeastern portion of Georgian Bay is in danger of losing its only link to the outside world — an aging ferry the chief of the Beausoleil First Nation says is on the verge of sinking.
Beausoleil, about 5,400 hectares of Ojibwa territory, is located primarily on Christian Island.
The picturesque First Nation — widely considered to be one of the real-life backdrops in “The Orenda,” the critically acclaimed novel by author Joseph Boyden —is dependent on the ferry, which makes its hour-long round trip to the island and back 14 times a day, seven days a week.
The service is the community’s lifeline, according to its chief Roland Monague, because it’s the only way to access the mainland.
“Our people have to cross day to day to get access to all the goods and services as well as hospitals, medical appointments,” he said.
Beausoleil First Nation is not alone in its accessibility struggle — the federal government is facing great pressure from a number of First Nations, many of them in remote locations, that are struggling to address crumbling infrastructure.
Optimism is growing, however, among First Nations communities across Canada — along with a competing list of demands — now that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed to reform Canada’s relationship with Aboriginal Peoples.
The federal response on the Beausoleil ferry issue will help determine whether that commitment carries weight, Monague said.
“They promised to have a nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations,” he said. “So tell me — if this is not approved, what is our nation-to nation relationship?”
Federal funding for infrastructure in communities will facilitate economic development and increase access to health services and education, according to Ontario Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Isadore Day.
Many reserves have inferior water systems, if they have water systems at all, and rely on winter roads because they do not have access to all-season roads, Day said. It’s difficult to determine needs without a complete economic assessment, he added.
Beausoleil’s 65-year-old vessel — the M.V. Sandy Graham — was purchased by the government in 1998 as an interim measure to transport passengers and vehicles.
It is no longer safe and a replacement is urgently needed, Monague said.
“They have a fiduciary responsibility to us as First Nations for health and safety,” he said. “Without a proper, safe, viable transportation for the community, we are going to be in a predicament soon.”
Peggy Smith, an associate professor at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., said the new Liberal government will need to look at collaborating with communities instead of reaching conclusions from “on high.”
“What’s wrong with the way that we are making decisions about infrastructure in First Nations? … It is about the decision-making model,” she said, noting investments shouldn’t always be looked at “as a sink.”
Much of Canada is struggling with infrastructure, Smith added, but she said First Nations remain even further behind.
“We’ve got this failing infrastructure at all levels and how the government is going to figure out what is priority and what is not, I have no idea.”
Beausoleil’s ferry has been a long-standing issue — it was slated for replacement when the federal Liberals were last in power, but the plan was dry-docked by the former Conservative government in 2007.
Replacing it is expected to cost $30 million, said Monague, who made a personal pitch to Finance Minister Bill Morneau during meetings last month with the AFN. Morneau’s office would not comment on the request.
“If the government can’t commit, then we have to strategize and do this on our own,” Monague said. “I, in good conscience, can’t continue to sail this ferry knowing that tragedy could happen out on that water.”
—Follow @kkirkup on Twitter