North

As COVID-19 cases rise, Fort Smith leaders want ice road to Fort Chipewyan closed this winter

The chief of the Smith's Landing First Nation says he sent a letter to the local COVID-19 secretariat representative asking that the ice road between Fort Smith and Fort Chipewyan not open this winter.

'Alberta is exploding with COVID[-19], and we don't want it coming here'

Bystanders at the beginning of the winter road connecting Fort Smith to Fort Chipewyan. (David Thurton/CBC)

Leaders in Fort Smith, N.W.T., want to close a popular ice road to northern Alberta this winter due to COVID-19.

Gerry Cheezie, chief of Smith's Landing First Nation, told CBC he sent a letter to the town's local COVID-19 secretariat representative earlier this week to ask that the road to Fort Chipewyan, Alta., a fly-in community four hours south of Fort Smith, be closed during the winter.

"We are urging Parks Canada to keep the Fort Chipewyan Winter road closed this year," the letter reads.

Cheezie told CBC keeping the road open means anyone can travel into their community from Alberta, increasing the risk of more cases coming to the region.

"Alberta is exploding with COVID[-19], and we don't want it coming here," Cheezie said.

"It heightens the danger of community spread."

'We all need to make sacrifices'

Lynn Napier, the mayor of Fort Smith, told CBC the town is opposed to keeping the road open for the same reasons Cheezie mentioned.

Although she knows it might be hard for people with relatives on the other side of the N.W.T.-Alberta border, Napier said she wants people to remember the times we're living in.

"Until we can get [COVID-19] under control, we all need to make sacrifices and change the way that we live," she said.

The 228-kilometre ice road starts at the end of a gravel road just south of Fort Smith and extends over several rivers and lakes, including Lake Athabasca, to Fort Chipewyan.

Parks Canada looking for input

Fort Chipewyan is only accessible by road in the winter. It's connected to Fort Smith in the north, and Fort McMurray, Alta., in the south with two separate ice roads.

Parks Canada is responsible for maintaining the road to Fort Smith, and the municipality of Wood Buffalo takes care of the southern route to Fort McMurray.

Fort Chipewyan is part of the regional municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes 12 communities throughout northern Alberta. There are 110 active cases in the municipality, all concentrated in Fort McMurray, according to provincial COVID-19 data.

It's very popular and very important to people in this area.- Beverley Tupper, Fort Fitzgerald, Alta.

Parks Canada told CBC in a statement that it's looking for input from both Fort Smith and Fort Chipewyan, the regional municipality of Wood Buffalo and the territorial government on whether the road should open up this December.

"We intend to work collaboratively with the relevant organizations over the next month to understand perspectives, options and risks," the statement reads.

The territory currently gives special provisions to some Alberta residents north of Peace River to enter the Northwest Territories without having to self-isolate so they can access services in Fort Smith.

Fort Chipewyan, pictured above, is in northeast Alberta on the shores of Lake Athabasca. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

This includes members of Smith's Landing First Nation and the Mikisew Cree First Nation. The Parks Canada statement says opening the winter road connection to Alberta could "jeopardize" these special provisions.

In a statement to CBC, the municipality of Wood Buffalo says they're aware that Parks Canada is running consultations, but did not offer a position on whether the road to Fort Smith should open.

It confirmed work on the southern route to Fort McMurray has already started, and should be open by Dec. 15.

'It's going to have quite an impact'

Beverley Tupper, a resident of Fort Fitzgerald, Alta., lives in a tiny community of eight people just south of Fort Smith.

Every year, she said people in the region "really look forward" to the opening of the ice road right before the holidays so they can go visit relatives.

During the winter, Tupper said Albertans often drive up to Fort Smith to enjoy the community's winter carnival and local fishing derbies. At the end of the ice road season in early March, Tupper said there's often a "flurry of activity" as people fit in a last-minute visit with family or come north to buy groceries.

"It's going to have quite an impact on people, to have it closed," Tupper said. "It's very popular and very important to people in this area."

Alberta resident supports road closure

Before COVID-19, Rubi Sakeskanip-Shirley used the ice road four times a year to buy groceries in Fort Smith.

She loves the drive up to the N.W.T. because there are often buffalo herds crossing the lakes, she said.

It can take anywhere between four to six hours to drive to Fort Smith, but that's much faster than going south to Fort McMurray.

I have to keep myself safe, so I'm OK with that.- Rubi Sakeskanip-Shirley, northern Alberta

Still, Sakeskanip-Shirley said she's willing to make the longer trip from her home outside Fort Chipewyan to Fort McMurray for her essentials if it'll keep everybody safe.

"It wouldn't matter to me if they close the road," Sakeskanip-Shirley told CBC.

"COVID[-19] is a concern, and I have to keep myself safe, so I'm OK with that."

5 COVID-19 cases in Fort Smith

The concerns come as the territory confirmed four additional COVID-19 cases in Fort Smith on Thursday afternoon, bringing the total to five in the community. All of the cases are within the same household.

A statement from Dr. Kami Kandola, the territory's chief public health officer, says there is still no risk of community transmission from these cases.

"A contact investigation indicates there are no outstanding contacts in the Northwest Territories and no public risk identified for any N.W.T. communities or recent air travelers," the statement reads.

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