By Jim West
Northern Manitoba First Nations leaders declared a state of emergency on January 11th over delays in the opening of winter roads. The northern chiefs say weeks of unseasonably warm temperatures in early January due to climate change have threatened crucial ice roads used to deliver much-needed supplies such as groceries, fuel, and construction materials. “We declared a state of emergency so that the government of Canada and the province of Manitoba immediately start working with First Nations to develop a contingency plan,” said Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Inc. (MKO) Grand Chief David Harper. “The governments have to start planning with us today to make sure that housing packages and water and waste-water treatment equipment and other critical supplies are brought into our communities by the spring of 2012.”
The opportunity to build and use ice roads to connect about two dozen fly-in only Aboriginal communities to the south has been gradually shrinking. Ice roads that cross frozen ground, lakes, rivers, and muskeg typically open for almost two months are now sometimes only usable for 20 days. The construction of annual winter roads is vital to about 30,000 people in northern communities. The province estimates that about 2,500 shipments of staple goods are transported by trucks over 2,200 kilometres of ice roads each year instead of being flown in at greater expense. Aboriginal leaders say they need delivery of 77 tractor-trailer loads of goods immediately and hundreds of truckloads of goods are waiting to be moved out. This year, the roads are crucial for shipping $5.5 million in supplies to improve access to running water for thousands of residents in the four Island Lake communities.
In November, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan pledged funding when he agreed to support a Liberal motion to start making progress in bringing running water to northern communities by the spring. More than half of the homes in Island Lake have no running water, leaving residents to rely on water from community water pipes. A 2006 study by the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources found the shortened ice season has had a cumulative effect. The study said that weak ice on lakes makes it harder to trap and fish. Scarce supplies of healthy groceries when fewer trucks make the trip up north can lead to chronic health problems such as diabetes. The shortened winter hauling season further exacerbates housing shortages in northern communities since many construction materials can only be transported over land.
Officials with Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation said crews are working to prepare the roads as recent cooler temperatures make conditions more favourable. Roads north of Island Lake could be open as early as January 17th, while the rest will depend on upcoming weather. “We’ve have this cold snap of weather which is going to be good, and looks like it will maintain for the next few weeks and build the ice up to get them open,” said Larry Halayko from Manitoba Infrastructure. Halayko said he anticipates the first roads won’t be open until late January and many won’t be ready until early February.
The northern chiefs are also becoming increasingly frustrated over “continued political inaction” in constructing an all-weather road along the east side of Lake Winnipeg. Last year, some chiefs declared a state of emergency when warm weather turned their winter roads to muddy quagmires, stranding some truckers, causing fuel shortages. Harper said he and other chiefs plan to raise the issue at a national meeting with the prime minister later this month. “All-weather roads into the northern region have to be taken seriously from now on,” said Harper. “Saskatchewan did it. Quebec did it. We’ve got to speed up the process.” Government officials said discussions between the federal and provincial governments are ongoing.