Costs soar in 2 Manitoba First Nations after barge explosion, delayed ferry service cut transport options

Costs are rising dramatically for residents of two First Nations communities struggling to bring in supplies of food and fuel, after a barge explosion and delays in the startup of a ferry service left them with few options for transporting goods.

Poplar River First Nation declared a state of emergency on May 30 and started rationing fuel after a May 6 explosion damaged the MV Poplar River — the barge the community depends on to transport bulk items in the summer — while it was dry-docked.

Since Poplar River has no year-round road, the only way to now bring gas into the isolated community, which is on the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg, is by air.

But because the community’s airstrip can’t accommodate anything bigger than small passenger planes, fuel can only be transported in small amounts.

That’s driven the price of gas up to $3.13 a litre, and each family is limited to a maximum of 20 litres per day, says Jane Mitchell, who lives in Poplar River.

As well, “the food prices are gone sky high here,” and people have had to cut back on what they buy, she said.

“There are a lot of people that are just on social assistance and sometimes I see … some of them struggle just because they don’t really have enough to last them because of all the prices going up.”

Community still in lockdown 

York Factory First Nation has also declared a state of emergency. 

A letter declaring the emergency earlier this month said York Factory, about 350 kilometres to the north of Poplar River, has been without ground access since the Split Lake winter road closed on April 26.

The startup of the provincial ferry service has been delayed due to repair work on the hull of the vessel.

Chief Darryl Wastesicoot told CBC that the earliest estimate for repairs to be completed is the end of July, and no alternative ferry is being made available. 

Living without the ferry is “like the COVID situation,” during which people in the community couldn’t go anywhere, he said.

Normally, during spring and summer, they can go back and forth to Thompson — about 120 kilometres away — for shopping, business and entertainment, said Wastesicoot.

Now, leaving the community requires a costly charter, and staying means paying higher prices for everything, he said.

“We are forced to shop where we live,” he said, but “the prices are so high … we can’t even afford to shop there.”

The situation has dampened the community’s summer spirit, the chief said.

“It’s just very frustrating. It makes everybody feel angry and the children feel that.”

Kids could usually go swimming this time of year, but Wastesicoot says high water levels mean they don’t even have that diversion. 

“Now the beaches are not there, because the water is so high, so our kids haven’t been able to do anything at all.”

No alternative vessel

On Monday, Poplar River’s last hope of salvaging its summer was dashed, said David MacKay, the community’s liaison to the provincial and federal governments. 

MacKay said the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation — the federal Crown corporation that owns and operates the MV Poplar River — has arranged for the vessel to be fixed after the explosion, but the repairs won’t be completed until the fall. 

The province provided another barge, The Edgar Wood, as an alternative.

The Edgar Wood is a flat-bottom vessel, which means it isn’t suitable for transporting cargo on Lake Winnipeg, where conditions ‘can get very treacherous very quickly,’ says David MacKay, York Factory First Nation’s liaison to the provincial and federal governments. (Submitted by David MacKay)

It was able to help commercial fishers by transporting fish from the Berens River First Nation fishing station, which is on a small island, back to the mainland, said MacKay.

That helped save the season for the commercial fishers, including those from Poplar River who had gone to Berens River — about 70 kilometres south — to work, he said.

However, after it was tested this week, it was clear that vessel won’t work for transporting goods to Poplar River, because it is a flat-bottom barge and the conditions of Lake Winnipeg in the north “can get very treacherous very quickly,” said MacKay.

“We were only in one-foot waves and the vessel was vibrating and shaking violently. So it was very clear that this would not be safe enough to operate, let alone to secure cargo.”

Poplar River is now out of options, MacKay said.

“That means that the community is going to be stranded economically for the entire summer.”

The crisis highlights the need for a long-term solution, said MacKay.

“Shame on all of us for not having a backup system,” he said.

“We need a backup system here. We’re talking about an economic lifeline to a community.”