'We are tired of waiting ': Wasagamack takes airstrip into its own hands after summer wildfire evacuation

After a wildfire blazed beside an isolated First Nation in northern Manitoba, leading to an emergency evacuation over the summer, the community is coming together to clear land for an airstrip.

Volunteers clearing land to send a message to government about need for airport

Evacuees from Wasagamack First Nation line up at an airport in the nearby community of St. Theresa Point in order to catch a plane out to safety on Aug. 29. (Mark Wood Ganabook)

After a wildfire blazed and burned beside an isolated First Nation in northern Manitoba, leading to an emergency evacuation over the summer, the community is coming together to clear land for an airstrip — with or without government help.

Hundreds of people from Wasagamack First Nation will be heading out with tools and vigour to clear the brush and prepare land for an airstrip on Tuesday.

"I'm hoping by doing this we are challenging the federal and provincial governments to come on board and be a partner in this effort to construct this critical infrastructure for Wasagamack," said Chief Alex McDougall.

A wildfire quickly encroached on the community, about 470 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg on the western shore of Island Lake, near the end of August. Wasagamack has no airport, so the roughly 2,000 people of the community were taken 10 kilometres by boat to the airport in St. Theresa Point, so they could be flown to Winnipeg, Brandon and Thompson.

"Our only mode of transportation to get out was to jump in to our boats and start ferrying our members in these 16-foot aluminum boats filled with maybe six, seven people at a time," McDougall said. "We could have had tragedies."

He said while they were slowly boating people across the water, the community became dark with smoke and embers could be seen floating through the sky. It was an extremely dangerous situation, he said, which could have been averted if they had an airport.

Residents from Wasagamack First Nation were taken by boat to St. Theresa Point to escape nearby wildfires in August. (Facebook)

After the flames were put out and community members could return home, McDougall said they instantly started working on a proposal for an $8-million airstrip and airport in Wasagamack. By Sept. 28, he said they had submitted it to Amarjeet Sohi, federal infrastructure and communities minister.

McDougall said he was told that it would be discussed with provincial counterparts, but a few weeks later, he was told federal and provincial officials would need more time.

Sohi has discussed the project with McDougall and met with his provincial government counterpart in Winnipeg last week, said Brook Simpson, his press secretary.

"In order for a project to be funded by Infrastructure Canada it must be first prioritized by the provincial government, who submits a funding application to the federal government," Simpson said in an email on Tuesday morning. "We will continue to work with the province and Wasagamack First Nation to move their priorities forward."

The provincial government said it's focusing on building a road between the community and St. Theresa Point.

"Safe and accessible infrastructure is our government's priority as we continue to focus on construction of the 28-kilometre all-weather road between the communities of Wasagamack and St. Theresa Point," Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said in an emailed statement.

"We will also continue to negotiate with our federal counterparts on opportunities to cost-share infrastructure projects in Manitoba."

Wasagamack has been hearing promises of an airport and an airstrip for more than 50 years from different governments, McDougall said. The community wanted to see some action.

"After 50 years, that promise is still outstanding and from what we faced this summer and the potential loss of infrastructure, homes and lives, we said we are tired of waiting for governments to come and listen and work with the community to provide that critical infrastructure," he said.

Community members have already cleared an access road to the site. Now, volunteers will clear the brush and prepare the land for an airstrip, McDougall said. The community is covering the cost of gas and equipment.

They've already heard interest from different smaller airlines that service the region, he said.

McDougall hopes it will show both levels of government that the community is serious about the need for an airport and does not want to wait anymore.

If there isn't a financial commitment from governments, the community will find another way, the chief said.

"Wasagamack and our members, on a daily basis, put their lives at risk to access critical infrastructure or the airports across the lake," he said.

An airport will bring down the cost of living as well as improve access in medical emergencies, he said.

"If for some reason we are having a serious medical incident, we can't simply just take them to the airport and they are airlifted to Winnipeg. We have to wait to daylight to do that because you can't simply just cross the lake to do it. The benefits outweigh the costs of building this airport for our members."

With files from Holly Caruk