Northern communities call for reversal of 'appalling and unacceptable' cuts to airport maintenance funding
Manitoba government says snow clearing will still meet Nav Canada standards
First Nations leaders are calling on the provincial government to reverse "appalling and unacceptable" cuts they say affect snow clearing and maintenance at airports in northern Manitoba.
At a press conference Friday, leaders from the Keewatin Tribal Council and Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak communities said they were not consulted by the province before the changes were made and went into effect last weekend.
They said just over $2 million in funding for northern airports and marine operations was cut, which means runways at over 20 northern airports will no longer be cleared of snow — unless there's a medical emergency — on weekends.
"Clearly people do not have an understanding of the importance of these airports to our citizens," said MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee. "It's appalling and unacceptable.
"The airports for all remote and isolated First Nation communities are a lifeline to access goods and services that other Manitobans and Canadians enjoy," he said.
However, the provincial government, in an emailed statement from a spokesperson, told CBC News that snow clearing for emergency services will continue as usual.
John Clarke, chief of Barren Lands First Nation in northwestern Manitoba, said he learned of the cuts when his flight home last Saturday was delayed because a runway hadn't been cleared.
When the pilots on his plane determined it was too dangerous to land, he said the flight was diverted back to Thompson, where some passengers, who weren't expecting the diversion, couldn't afford accommodations for the night.
"We're leaving them vulnerable and stranded in an airport somewhere with no money," Settee said.
"A lot of them are very young, so we need to address this," he said.
"We're asking the government to reinstate these services because it does impact our communities, our citizens in a very negative way."
Clarke, who worked for northern airports for more than 20 years before becoming chief, said the facilities are crucial to communities.
"If the government provides us with an all-weather road, then they can take away these airports from us," he said.
Airports a lifeline for northern communities
Clarke also said Hydro crews often need to get into the communities to make repairs on weekends.
The airports are also vital for bringing groceries to remote and isolated communities, and for getting those who need emergency medical help out.
"We're not asking for much, but please keep these airports open on weekends," said Clarke.
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said the province's decision "borders on negligence" and is demanding a meeting with Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister over the cuts.
"We are completely reliant on the air service and for the government to make an arbitrary decision to absolutely cease the maintenance and proper operations of those airports is very negligent," he said.
A provincial spokesperson told CBC News in an emailed statement that Manitoba Infrastructure's northern airports crews, which service 23 airports, will continue to meet snow removal standards set out in Nav Canada's Canadian Flight Supplement manual.
The statement said provincial crews have been exceeding standards that say snow must be cleared once it reaches a depth of two inches (five centimetres), for the primary purpose of accommodating potential medical evacuations, for the last few years.
Because service standards haven't changed, the provincial spokesperson said there was no need to conduct community consultations.
Specific questions about the Northern Airports and Marine Operations budget were not answered.