Temporary Highway 6 porta-potties finally bring relief for northern Manitoba travellers

People travelling through Manitoba on the Number 6 now have a place to go number 1 and 2.

New porta-potties popped up last week at two rest stops along Highway 6 — a vital north-south corridor that stretches roughly 750 kilometres across Manitoba, from Winnipeg to Thompson.

The new temporary washrooms are part of a provincial government pilot project to reduce waste and address safety concerns, the province said in a May 14 news release.

The temporary washrooms were installed just before the May long weekend, with two porta-potties at the Devils Lake rest stop area, about 320 kilometres north of Winnipeg, and two others about 260 kilometres further north on the highway, at a rest stop near William River.

“It’s going to be really appreciated by anybody who is travelling on the highway,” said Heidi Cook, chief of Misipawistik Cree Nation, which is on Highway 6 and about 300 kilometres south of Thompson.

“You know, sometimes nature calls and you can’t wait for two hours.”

A woman wearing a head dress.
Misipawistik Cree Nation Chief Heidi Cook says travellers on the highway will appreciate the new rest stops. (Submitted by Heidi Cook)

Previously, options for bathroom breaks on the highway were limited.

Ponton Junction, north of William River, was a popular spot for travellers to stop, before a fire in 2018 destroyed the gas station and restaurant stop there.

The incident was described as a “huge loss to the community” at the time, but no replacement was built.

That’s meant for travellers on the highway over the past six years, “if you want to use the bathroom, you kind of have to find a bush to hide in,” Cook told CBC.

“So I hope that the bathrooms here are able to be maintained and help clean up the area, because it’s a beautiful stop along the highway when you’re travelling.”

Porta-potties only provide temporary relief 

But not everyone is on board with the new bathrooms.

Temporary washrooms are not what the Safer Highway 6 Citizen Action Group was hoping for when it presented its recommendations for highway improvements, along with a petition calling for changes, to provincial officials two years ago.

“We were looking for something that’s more permanent,” Volker Beckmann, a volunteer with the action group, told CBC. 

“The thing with porta-potties, we know in other places when vandalism comes, [people] can knock them over, and then the question is, who cleans them properly?”

A group of people standing the legislative assembly with a sign that read "Safer Highway 6."
A group, including Volker Beckmann, right, lobbied for changes to improve safety on Highway 6 at the Manitoba legislature in May 2022. Beckmann says the group was hoping for more permanent changes than the porta-potties. (CBC)

The volunteer action group was started after Danielle Adams, then the member of the legislature for Thompson, was killed in a December 2021 collision on Highway 6 south of Ponton.

The group’s 2022 online petition, which was signed by about 5,600 people, included a list of more than 50 vehicle accidents along Highway 6 dating back to 1978, including roughly 20 deaths.

It called for the province to adopt a series of international road safety improvements, including wider shoulders, rest stops and passing lanes.

“Sometimes you have to use that bathroom on the side of the road, and sometimes there’s not even enough shoulder to do that, and then where do you go?” Beckmann said.

While the new porta-potties will provide some relief for travellers, Beckmann said permanent structures would better address safety and hygiene concerns.

Part of 5-month pilot: province

Porta-potties are not the long-term solution, Manitoba Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Lisa Naylor told CBC.

The pilot, launched days before May long weekend, is intended to run until Thanksgiving weekend to get a sense of how much the stops are used by travellers.

“There was nowhere to stop for a five- or six-hour stretch of highway, and that’s not true anymore,” Naylor said.

“Porta-potties might not be ideal, but given that there’s not any water or plumbing service to the area, it is a really important first step.”

Naylor said the province now has an opportunity to put in traffic counters to collect data for the project, and it also hopes to hear from travellers along the route, who can call 511 to share feedback.

The province is exploring what permanent washroom facilities would look like at the rest stop, Naylor said, but officials “need time to figure out what that would look like.”

One rest stop has already had a visit from a provincial official — Thompson MLA Eric Redhead posted a photo of himself at one of the stops to Facebook on May 18.

A man with an umbrella stand in front of porta potties.
A Facebook post shows Eric Redhead, the MLA for Thompson, checking out one of the new temporary toilets on Highway 6 on May 18. (Eric Redhead/Facebook)

Misipawistik Chief Cook said there has been a bit of fanfare for the new facilities.

“Some people were travelling home after the May long weekend and stopped to use the new bathroom, and it was a big enough deal to share the news with family and stuff,” she said with a laugh.

“So I mean, just about anyone who travels on Highway 6 is going to be happy to see those.”