Corp Comm Connects

Fixed link is ‘the promise of a better future’ for Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation

Community adhering to Impact Assessment Agency of Canada process to assess potential impacts on Lake Simcoe: Chief Donna Big Canoe
Nov. 15, 2023
Laura Broadley

A safe passage from Georgina Island to the mainland is not a new idea, but has been on the minds of Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation (GIFN) leadership for generations.

“Our aging ferry system and unreliable ice roads during winter pose immense risks to our community's safety and well-being,” said Donna Big Canoe, Chief of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation.

During the spring, summer and autumn, Georgina Island is accessible by the Aazhaawe Ferry, which isn’t used in the winter when people have to rely on airboats or ice road. GIFN is proposing the construction of the Georgina Island Fixed Link (GIFL), a combination of bridge and causeway. The fixed link would give GIFN a safe connection between Georgina Island and the mainland.

“The present-day transportation challenges have deeply affected every community member, be it losing loved ones during dangerous winter crossings or facing the anxiety of inaccessible emergency services. Our community wants, needs and deserves to have safer, more reliable transportation,” Big Canoe said.

GIFN ancestors used a natural land link, but that was lost during the construction of the Trent-Severn Waterway.

“Historically, our ancestors used to walk across the shallow waters of Lake Simcoe from the island to the mainland,” according to Big Canoe.

Big Canoe believes many people don’t fully grasp the implications of the transportation challenges on the day-to-day life of community members.

“The gap in infrastructure and the associated hardships our community -- and many First Nations communities face -- are real and impactful. Our reliance on outdated modes of transportation poses grave risks to our members,” she said.

The community will provide information on the project, including research, studies and reports via the GIFL project website, and information on GIFN’s history, traditions and current challenges.

The project is still in the planning phase with a detailed project description postponed until January at the earliest. The holiday season, a finalized online system for the release of project data and the delay of the ecology and coastal engineering reports, which are essential to the First Nation's understanding of the impacts of the Fixed Link project, have all contributed to a postponed detailed project description.

“Georgina Island First Nation’s objective remains to minimize the environmental impact, preserve Lake Simcoe’s ecosystem and honour our Anishinaabeg values. We want to ensure that the reports are comprehensive, reflective of the most accurate and updated data available and have been presented to our members for review,” Big Canoe said.

Before the detailed project description is submitted, GIFN will host two engagement sessions to go over technical aspects of the project and provide an opportunity for the public to ask the project and technical teams questions as well as provide feedback. One of the sessions is exclusive to members of GIFN and the other will be open to everyone.

GIFN’s main goal is to implement a transportation system that will serve the community’s next Seven Generations.

“GIFN is rigorously adhering to the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada (IAAC) process to thoroughly assess the Fixed Link's impact on Lake Simcoe,” Big Canoe said. “Through the IAAC process, we will have a 360-degree review of all of the impacts that may result from the Fixed Link to fully inform our design process.”

In 2008, a study was done on the potential for a fixed link, but the project didn’t move forward because of human and financial resource constraints.

Fifteen years later, the community has access to financial resources and funding for the project in addition to facing the end-of-life of the current ferry.

“Our community has recognized a strong need to pursue and research a fixed link. We believe this is the opportune moment to fully explore, design and proceed with this significant infrastructure project that will support the health and safety of our community,” Big Canoe said.

After sharing a project status update with subscribers of the fixed link project website mailing list, the project team received several “hurtful and racist comments,” according to the Fixed Link Secretariat in a followup email to subscribers. To address this issue, the Secretariat announced the activation of an email auto-response feature outlining the process for submitting comments directly to IAAC’s GIFL comment submission page.

“The fixed link is a lifeline for our community, not a conduit for extensive development, large complexes or casinos. Our focus is our community's safety, security and well-being -- any claims otherwise are baseless and potentially harmful, perpetuating negative stereotypes about Indigenous communities,” Big Canoe said.

The fixed link project is about improving the quality of life for community members, safer transportation, year-round transportation and eliminating many of the community’s current challenges, Big Canoe said.

“It means school-aged children won't have to be separated from families during winters, our elders will be able to easily access medical care, our members can access off-reserve opportunities more readily and the overall quality of life will significantly improve. The fixed link isn't just a road or bridge; it is the connection to our hope for a better future for our people and the First Nation.”