Shorter winter road seasons leave remote communities concerned

It’s cold now, but with winter showing up fashionably late in Manitoba there’s a shorter winter road season.

Blair Owen, counsellor for Little Grand Rapids First Nation, Man. said the shorter season is giving community members a run for their money. The three winter roads connecting the community to a nearby airport, Pauingassi First Nation and Bloodvein First Nation are still closed, according to the Government of Manitoba’s latest report.

“We usually begin construction the beginning of December,” Owen said. But, because the weather has been so mild, construction only started last week. The recent cold snap is certainly helping though, he said, some areas getting light traffic, which helps pack down the snow for larger transport trucks.

Before full loads can make the crossing, Owen said the ice has to be four feet thick, so flooding operations are happening around the clock.

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Susan Green, communications manager with the Manitoba Trucking Association said the winter road season is “kind of all over the place,” with some routes open as long as 61 days one year and 15 another. However, the past eight years have shown a trend of shorter time periods when winter roads are open, she said.

Right now, goods have to be flown into Little Grand Rapids, making the cost of a two litre pop bottle about $20, Owen said. When it’s trucked in, he said it’s about $10. “Trucking helps bring the prices down,” Owen said, adding canned goods, bulk flour and sugar and other heavy items are on the list of things that need to be hauled in by truck.

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The same idea applies to construction material and fuel, which also need to be carted up to the first nation, he said.

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“We bring in construction material–a year’s worth of construction material, (a) year’s worth of fuel for the First Nation,” he said. Without the winter roads, “we might have to ration fuel (and) building projects would be delayed, because there’s some stuff you just can’t fly in.”

Between inflation and “cost of living in the north already high,” he said, “people struggle,” with single people on social assistance getting $421 per month.

In an emailed statement, Carolane Gratton, spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), said “Remote communities relying on winter roads are living with the first-hand impacts of a limited winter road season.”

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Gratton added, “we understand that the shortening winter road seasons heighten stress and logistical pressures for many remote First Nations. Let us be clear: we will do what it takes to make sure the delivery of essential supplies is uninterrupted and impacted communities have what they need at all times.”

Green said truckers are preparing to make trips up north, even though most roads are still closed.

“They will have been building up the fright all year long. They’re getting ready, they’re strategizing,” she said, adding that this year “might be more intense, but they’ll still be focused on being safe (and) being efficient.”

Some ways truckers are strategizing are maxing out their trailer weights, increasing the number of trucks heading out and drivers, as well as positioning goods so they’re ready to go, Green said.

Owen said he remembers a time when he was in elementary school and there was a winter road failure. As a result, everything had to be flown in he said.

“The winter road is an outdated system,” he said. “Bring us into 2024, not leaving us in the 1960s or 70s.”

He calls on the provincial and federal governments to create all-weather, permanent roads, and to enhance funding for winter roads. “I think it would be a good investment. It’ll bring economic development to these communities to increase the standard of living,” he said. “You’ve got to start looking at a permanent solution.”

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In an emailed statement, the province’s minister of transportation and infrastructure, Lisa Naylor, said, “We know that all-season roads are a priority for many northern communities. Our government is committed to working collaboratively with the federal government on important issues such as this. We will also continue to work with First Nations leadership and communities to ensure winter roads are open for as long as possible.”

Gratton said, “minister Patty Hajdu’s office has also reached out to the Manitoba Government to organize a joint meeting to discuss immediate and long-term options with the communities. We will also reassess options once the duration of the winter road season is determined.

“The Province of Manitoba is responsible for the winter road network and ISC cost-shares the construction and maintenance of the network on a 50:50 basis with the Province. ISC provides approximately $7 million to the Province annually.”

Owen said that’s not enough.

“Divide that up between a dozen communities. It’s nothing,” he said, adding “We get $240,000 to construct and maintain this winter road.”

Gratton said “ISC has invested a total of $82.7 million in winter roads since 2016 and as of September 30, 2023.”

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Northern Manitoba winter road challenges

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