WINNIPEG — Muddy ice roads that stranded dozens of drivers in the wilderness and prompted 16 northern Manitoba First Nations to declare a state of emergency are proof that permanent all-season roads are needed, the province’s grand chief said Friday.
Ron Evans, head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said this year’s early closure of the winter routes has left communities without building supplies and with a dwindling stockpile of fuel and food.
Although Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised “action” to help airlift supplies into the reserves, Evans said climate change is making it increasingly difficult to rely on the snowy winter routes.
“First Nations have been warning about climate change and the winter roads season for years,” Evans said. “They have to start putting plans in place that will deal with climate change. We’re already experiencing it.”
Normally, the 2,200 kilometres of temporary routes over frozen swamps, muskeg and lakes are open for as long as eight weeks. But that window has been shrinking. Mild weather shut the roads down after less than a month this time, cutting more than 30,000 people off from the south. The early spring has turned the frozen routes into a muddy morass, stranding truckers and others in the wild.
About 2,500 shipments of fuel, groceries, construction materials and general freight — enough to last a year — usually are trucked in on ice roads to many First Nations. Otherwise, goods must be flown in at great expense.
Aboriginal leaders and the provincial government have called on Ottawa to help pay to airlift the necessary supplies. Speaking at a stop in Brandon on Friday, Harper said talks are ongoing.
“I know there has been some concern because of the early melting of the winter roads this spring. I also know that our Minister of Indian Affairs, Chuck Strahl, and the department have been holding discussions with communities about how best to respond to the situation,” Harper said.
“We will come up with some actions.”
Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger said the province is looking at ways to build long-term roads, and preliminary planning for an eastern route is already underway.
“We’re doing the long-term planning. We’re doing job-creation up there to have a permanent road,” Selinger said. “We have to get over the bump in this season and then make sure we go forward to get a long-term solution.”