While Norway House Cree Nation has an on-reserve population that puts it among Manitoba’s largest communities, it still does not have year-round highway access.
Now, residents of the northern Manitoba community say they want a bridge built near where a cable ferry crosses the Nelson River.
That ferry, along Provincial Road 373, is the only way ground transport can get into the community, which has a registered population of more than 8,600, including over 6,500 living on reserve, according to federal government statistics.
“The main reason for bringing in the bridge [is] all-season access, for food security, mainly for basic needs like fuel,” said Wayne Anderson, the chief operating officer of Norway House Cree Nation.
He is also concerned for citizens who have to travel long distances for health needs, such as dialysis patients who go to Thompson — about 200 kilometres to the north — a few times a week for treatment.
When the ferry is not operational, they often have to get creative to make their appointments on time.
“At times they had to walk across the river crossing, just to gain access to another vehicle on the other side,” said Anderson.
“There are certain times where we have to … take them across on a snowmobile, so that becomes very uncomfortable for somebody that’s not well.”
The ferry was purchased by the province in 2017 for $3.1 million. It runs 24 hours a day, which is a big improvement from the previous ferry, which had limited hours of operation.
But when it malfunctions, community members are stuck, Anderson said.
He recalled a recent accident where RCMP were called to help pull a car out of the water.
“They miscalculated the approach on the side here, [and] they plunged right into the river,” said Anderson.
“They disrupted service for about four hours … because the car was in the way of the channel.”
When there’s a more complicated malfunction, the ferry can be shut down for hours, if not days, he said.
“Another time they had some problems with fuel … so the operators had a temporary tank they needed to connect, but they had problems connecting the fuel lines,” said Anderson.
The mechanic they had to call in was more than an eight-hour drive away.
“Unfortunately the province has strict guidelines for outside mechanics working on these vessels … so they wouldn’t let our Red Seal mechanics touch it.”
Things get worse over the winter months, when the community builds a winter road right next to the path where the ferry runs.
As the climate changes, Anderson says the winter road has become less reliable.
“It starts to freeze a little later in the year and it keeps it frozen a little longer in the spring and … we try to adapt, but there are challenges operating in [those] conditions,” said Anderson.
“The ferry is not built … to be an icebreaker.”
Anderson says during winter freeze-up and spring melt, community members have no way to safely cross the river. That can last for days or weeks, depending on conditions.
“We start losing one month … or two months out of your life that you’re not able to travel out of the community, to be able to access other areas that Canadians take for granted,” said Anderson.
Norway House Cree Nation is in talks with the provincial and federal governments to build a bridge into the community. They have a proposal ready, and say the project will cost more than $61 million to build.
In the long run, a bridge will be cost-effective, the community says, since the current ferry costs $1.3 million per year to run, and the winter road costs $350,000 to build and maintain each year.
Bridge would be a ‘win-win’: province
The province says it is open to getting a bridge built — but with conditions.
“Our provincial government is committed as long as the conditions [are met] that the federal government will come to the table too,” said Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Doyle Piwniuk, who met with the Norway House officials earlier this year to discuss the need for a bridge.
The province wants the federal government to fund half of the project.
“We see the economic development, the economic benefits of making sure that they have an all-year access with a bridge,” said Piwniuk. “And so we feel that it’s a win-win for all levels.”
Anderson says he simply wants his community to have equitable access to Manitoba’s highways.
“People take for granted that you can be able to travel anywhere you want without having to have any obstacles,” he said.