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Mild winter blocks access to ice roads in remote Ontario reserves

A winter road at Pikangikum First Nation along the shore of Pikangikum Lake.

Joe Wheesk

Many remote First Nations communities in Northern Ontario are suffering the effects of one of the mildest winters on record: Roughly 60 per cent of ice roads connecting dozens of reserves to southern municipalities have yet to open. Most of those that have opened can only sustain light traffic – snowmobiles or small, half-ton trucks.

Frigid temperatures are welcomed in the region, as ice roads function as lifelines to otherwise landlocked First Nations, expediting the transportation of such supplies as diesel fuel, building materials and food. Sometimes community members themselves make the trip to Thunder Bay to stock up on essentials. Without winter roads, northern communities have been forced to ship supplies by air, a costly endeavour.

"Nothing's moving," said Darrell Morgan, president of Morgan Fuels, which is a top distributor of fuel in the Northern Ontario region. "The lack of ice is a tough go. We supply some communities with fuel through air freight, but it's extremely expensive."

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Fuel is particularly important because many communities use diesel-powered heat and electric generators.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said if ice roads continue to thaw, there will be no other choice but to fly in more supplies. NAN represents 49 Northern Ontario First Nations, roughly 28 of which rely on ice roads. There are about 45,000 people in the region.

"Communities are starting to run low on fuel," Mr. Fiddler said. "Most of our communities rely on diesel power generators, so they could just start to shut down – health centres, schools."

The ice road near Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, situated in Northwestern Ontario near Hudson Bay, is still closed. "There is an average of 14 inches of ice on lakes to be crossed," said Chief James Cutfeet, adding that is not thick enough to drive on.

Nesktantaga First Nation sits roughly 10 hours north of Thunder Bay and is home to about 300 people. Its ice road was closed for the better part of the winter and it's still not an adequate thickness to support freight trucks. Its community buildings run off diesel fuel; a dwindling supply has caused concern.

"Normally we'd open our roads early, like during the Christmas time," said Neskantaga Chief Wayne Moonias. "Usually at this time of year it's an opportunity for families to stock up on some of the things they would need throughout the whole year. The window of opportunity is limited now."

On a good year, there would be 28 to 26 inches of ice, said Mr. Moonias; this year it ranges between 16 to 22 inches.

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Neskantaga is a vulnerable community. Last month, a 14-year-old girl took her own life. The community was placed under a state of emergency in 2013 after there were four suicides and 20 suicide attempts, according to a NAN press release. Neskantaga has grappled with drug abuse, a diminished police force and the absence of mental-health services on-reserve.

Further isolation is the last thing the community needs. Price inflation on goods adds to the strain: Mr. Moonias said a package of 24 rolls of toilet paper costs $26.

Like many First Nations north of Thunder Bay, Naskantaga has been forced to boil for years – since 1995. Warm weather patterns may have long-term implications: Mr. Moonias said a shipment of water-treatment upgrade supplies might be jeopardized due to the conditions of the winter roads.

"Up north, there are no alternatives," said Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day. "Winter roads change the socioeconomic fabric of First Nations communities in the North."

Mr. Day said northern winter road networks generate anywhere between $5-million and $6-million in revenue.

He recently approached Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and raised the need for developing a "strategic approach" to help solve the laggard infrastructure system faced by many remote communities in the North. "Investment North is my proposal to government that we need to draw some very clear parameters around the investment needs of the remote north," he said.

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Mr. Day wants to look at ensuring access to four types of infrastructure: broadband, water, electrification and roads.

"Climate change," he said, "is really going to drive home the need for the proper strategy for Northern Ontario and the citizens that live in those remote communities."

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