Canada First Nations collaboration teaches engineering – and reconciliation

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Eleven students from the neighbouring University of Manitoba teamed up with Shoal Lake 40 to celebrate their new Freedom Road.

By U2B Staff 

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Shoal Lake 40, one of the Canada First Nations, has claimed a unique and beautiful section of land in the Eastman Region of Manitoba. As the area’s indigenous population, the reserve’s around 300 population have inhabited the land for generations. But the building of an aqueduct a century ago left the tribe in an unusual position.

The aqueduct construction resulted in the community being permanently cut off, stuck to live on a new island of man’s – not nature’s – making.

After years of back and forth with the Canadian government, the community has finally been connected to the Trans-Canada Highway, opening up opportunity and an easy route to access supplies. Freedom Road as the project has been dubbed was opened in June this year to much celebration.

Despite this, the community still remains a society reflective of a simpler time. Made up of only basic infrastructure, and not a shopping mall in sight, the reserve maintains the unspoilt feel of a bygone era.


The completion of Freedom Road does mean that development can happen more easily, and the community has a lot planned in the pipeline to revamp the settlement and provide the facilities its inhabitants deserve.

Stepping in to learn and assist on the first such development were eleven students from the neighbouring University of Manitoba.

Students from both the school of engineering and the school of architecture joined together with the Indigenous community on a collaborative design and build project.

Working closely with the First Nation community, students designed and built a feasting pavilion that acts as a place of celebration and a memorial. The project was specifically decided on by Shoal Lake’s inhabitants.

The memorial is in honour of those who lost their lives while making the dangerous over ice or over water crossing that was necessary before the opening of Freedom Road.


Students were involved in the entire lifeline of the project, seeing a building go from the drawing board to reality. Course leaders Shawn Bailey and Farhoud Delijan led them from conceptual design to detailed design, culminating in a week of on-site construction at Shoal Lake.

Talks from Elders at Migizii Agamik, the Indigenous student centre on campus, helped students gain a deeper
understanding of the Indigenous culture throughout the weeks of design. This process entailed group discussions, computer 3D modelling, and a physical scale model of the pavilion presented to the community on the day of the Freedom Road Celebration Pow Wow.

Not only did the students learn valuable lessons in engineering and architecture, but they also gained a deeper understanding for the indigenous communities in the region and the role education can play in atoning for the dark past of colonialism.


“This project was a good step towards reconciliation and working with the community; because only in working
together with each other can we even hope to help heal the wounds to bring our communities together,” one participant told Keystone Professional.

Chelsea, a student on the project, agreed:

“As someone who has been living in Winnipeg all my life, it is my responsibility and honour to be a part of this project. I was born on stolen land and have grown up on stolen water,” she said.

“This project is one small step towards reconciliation.”