State of emergency declared in 10 First Nations

Many First Nations communities in northern Manitoba are about to run out of essential supplies like food, fuel and construction materials.

Thawing winter roads prevent trucks from bringing in supplies

A state of emergency has been declared in 10 remote First Nations communities in Manitoba that are about to run out of essential supplies like food, fuel and construction materials.

The declaration was made Thursday during a meeting of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), an organization representing most First Nations in the province's northern region.

Temporary winter roads, cleared through bush, frozen muskeg, lakes, rivers and creeks, enable trucks to reach the remote areas to bring in a year's worth of supplies. But recent mild temperatures have softened the roads and made them difficult — in some cases, impossible — to cross.

The situation has already stranded at least a half-dozen semi-trailer units along parts of the 2,200-kilometre road system.

More than 20 First Nations that rely on the winter road network for everything from powdered milk to plywood. One of those is Red Sucker Lake First Nation, about 710 kilometers northeast of Winnipeg, which has completely run out of fuel and has no way to operate school buses or water and sewer trucks, according to band officials.

"This is a concern for the health of the community," said Chief Larry Knott, noting the band was also awaiting supplies to build a new water treatment plant this summer.

Shamattawa First Nation is about 750 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. (CBC)
In St. Theresa Point First Nation, about 500 kilometres north of Winnipeg, Chief David McDougal is trying to figure out how to get loads of lumber destined for the community.

The materials are needed for a planned school, nine new houses and upgrades to the nursing station.

"Some of these are big beams, you know, for a school and you can't fly them up. So we're in a dilemma," McDougal said.

"Our students are going to temporary classrooms right now and scattered all over the place."

Shamattawa First Nation, about 750 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, had hoped to get supplies to build 22 new homes this year.

"[There are] 20 people living in a two-bedroom home and they were expecting their new house this year," said David Harper, MKO grand chief.

Cold weather offers hope

A dip in temperatures Thursday cooled off the crisis, at least temporarily.

In Shamattawa, the mercury dipped to –11 degrees Celsius but the windchill made it feel closer to –23 C.

The colder weather means the road hardened once again and trucks were able to bring in some fuel supplies, said Chief Jeffrey Napaokesik.

A snowfall warning has also been issued for The Pas and Cross Lake areas, which could receive between 10 and 20 centimters of snow in the next couple of days.

Feds working on fly-in plan

The department of Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC) is working on plans with several remote communities to fly in supplies using Hercules aircraft and helicopters.

"Probably construction materials would be one of the major things," said Jeff Solmundson, spokesman for INAC in Manitoba.

However, there will likely be challenges, as some communities can't accommodate large aircraft, he added.

He didn't say how soon supplies could be airlifted to communities that do have room for the large planes.

Usually, the winter roads would be open for about eight weeks, but this year they were open for less than a month.

Mild weather delayed their start and a warmer-than-usual spring had deteriorated ice conditions.

The provincial government declared the road system closed as of 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.

That means the province won't cover any damages sustained by vehicles on the roads.