Sudbury

'The government is forgetting us way up here' say far north communities dependant on ice roads

Wally Turner had never seen boats out on the Moose River in December until this week, days after the Ontario auditor general slammed the government for ignoring the winter roads of the far north.

Government says funding for winter roads has gone up to $5 million annually

The ice road running along the James Bay Coast between Moosonee and Attawapiskat is part of a winter road network connecting the remote communities in Ontario's far north. (Erik White/CBC )

Wally Turner had never seen boats out on the Moose River in December until this week, days after the Ontario auditor general slammed the government for ignoring the winter roads of the far north.

Bonnie Lysyk says despite a commitment by the province to strengthen the winter road network in advance of climate change, "little progress" has been made.

Turner, who is the operations manager for the James Bay winter road that runs from Moosonee to Attawapiskat, said normally, he would have his crews out on the ice by now, prepping for the driving season ahead.

"Every year, we kind of lost a day and now we're losing about a week or so, our start date seems to be getting longer and our season gets a lot shorter now," he said.

While the government could invest in more equipment and more workers to build a harder road that will last longer into the spring, the only real solution is a road that isn't made of ice and snow, Turner said.

But the idea of a permanent road connecting Highway 11 to the communities of the coast has been spinning its wheels for decades.

The regional Cree government  the Mushkegowuk Council is in the midst of a planning study for an all-season road, but it is still many years of planning and hundreds of millions of dollars away from being built.

I feel the government is forgetting us way up here

According to Moosonee Mayor Wayne Taipale, a shorter ice road season will just make the problems of the coast worse: more isolation, higher food prices and less access to health care.

"I'm quite upset about it. I feel the government is forgetting us way up here," he said.

​"You know, every year, it's getting later and later that we get the winter roads in and they melt earlier in the spring. We used to be able to get three, four months. Now we're lucky if we get two months."

Taipale believes that a permanent road to the James Bay might actually save the government money, without having to pay for people and supplies to constantly fly in and out.
Workers tend to the driving surface of the ice road crossing the Albany River between Kashechewan and Fort Albany. (Erik White/CBC )

The Minister of Northern Development and Mines, Michael Gravelle wasn't made available for an interview, but in a statement noted that $5 million is provided to ice roads every winter, up $300,000 in the last two years.

"I'd like to thank the Auditor General for her report and its recommendations," Gravelle said in the statement.

"We are committed to working jointly with the Government of Canada to support remote communities in the Far North through this program," he continued.

"Since 2014 we have partnered with the Ministry of Transportation to deploy traffic counters on the winter road network, allowing for better understanding of which corridors receive the most frequent use, and which may require additional improvements.

Last year we engaged consulting engineers to inspect sections of the winter road network to identify potential problem areas and recommend improvements. These physical inspections will continue this season. We are also introducing new technology to measure ice thickness on the network to protect the safety of travellers."

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