Although the James Bay Winter Road connecting Attawapiskat, Fort Albany, Kashechewan and Moose Cree First Nations is set to open for full loads on Feb. 3, concerns are being raised about the winter roads in northwestern Ontario.
“We opened to light traffic, so that’s basically pickup trucks, on the 23rd of January and we plan to open to heavy traffic usually by the 1st of February and probably we’re looking at Monday (Feb. 3) this year,” says Nancy Wood, president of Kimesskanemenow LP, on Jan 29. “We’re just trying to get some of the ice crossings up to full spec. We normally try to get 40 inches of ice because that is what is required by the fuel tankers to get up to the communities.”
Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler says the winter road situation in northwestern Ontario is becoming “more and more concerning now that we are at the end of January.”
“The fact that many of our communities still cannot haul big loads of fuel or other supplies for the communities is something that we need to raise now with both Ontario and Canada,” Fiddler says, noting he spoke with his brother Roy Fiddler who coordinates the winter road between Muskrat Dam and North Caribou Lake earlier that day on Jan. 30. “The ice is not thick enough, the muskegs, the creeks are not freezing up, so they were having a hard time trying to build the ice and to try to even plow the road is becoming a huge concern.”
Fiddler says if the winter roads are not open soon, it will have a “huge financial impact” on the communities.
“Many communities now are running out of fuel for example,” Fiddler says. “If they can’t haul it in by winter road soon, they will have to fly it in, and that is probably three times more expensive than it would be hauling it on the winter road. So they will have to absorb that cost somehow, which will be for many of our communities which are just funded by contribution agreements with the programs and services they administer, that’s going to be a heavy hit on their financial resources.”
Fiddler says his community of Muskrat Dam and other fly-in communities are looking at building all-season roads in the future as the winter roads become “more and more unreliable and unsafe.”
The James Bay Winter Road was opened to light vehicle traffic up to a maximum Gross Vehicle Weight of 7,500 kilograms on Jan. 23. Kimesskanemenow LP is a limited partnership between the four communities that operate and manage the James Bay Winter Road.
“I drove the entire road yesterday and I was pleased with the progress that has been made,” Wood says. “We’re going to do our best to maintain it for as long as we can.”
Wood says the James Bay area had “cold weather” in December.
“We’ve got four different sections that are built by each of the communities in their traditional territories,” Wood says. “Two of the four are ready to go but we’re still trying to get the Albany River crossings up to spec.”
Wood says the James Bay Winter Road usually opens for heavy traffic by Feb. 1.
“Based on my experience, and I’ve been doing this since the early 2000s, we don’t normally get the road open to the heavy traffic until the beginning of February and we’re usually open until at least mid-March to late March depending on the weather,” Wood says. “We normally have a hauling period of around 45 days. In our case, they bring up I think around five million litres of fuel and I believe Attawapiskat has some housing projects that are being built.
I am not aware of a lot of other heavy loads. Last year we had a big haul because of the Kashechewan school being built.”
Wood says the James Bay Winter Road used to be partially funded by DeBeers for many years.
“Now that they closed their mine, we are struggling with the loss of a significant amount of funding,” Wood says. “This is our second year in building it with a lot less funding and it’s a new normal for us, but we’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got to work with. We’ve got some really amazing contractors that have done an excellent job.”
Nishnawbe Aski Nation’s Winter Road Update states that North Caribou Lake, which is connected by an all-season road, was the only community open for full loads as of Jan. 24.
The update states that 18 communities were open for light traffic, two communities were open for partial loads and the winter roads to 10 communities were still under construction.