Remote northern Manitoba communities anxiously wait for winter road openings

Remote northern Manitoba communities anxiously wait for winter road openings

Remote northern Manitoba communities anxiously wait for winter road openings

By Chelsea Kemp,

Photo Credit: John Woods/The Canadian Press

Unseasonably warm weather impacting winter roads construction

Northern Manitobans are nervously eyeing the sky and their thermometers hoping for the right conditions for winter roads to open.

Ralph Harper of St. Theresa Point First Nation, Man., is watching the river in his community hoping it will soon turn to ice. The river needs to freeze so the community’s 294-kilometre winter road can connect to Berens River.

But, the weather is not co-operating in the Northern Manitoba community.

“We depend on the winter road for our supplies, our materials, our food, our gasoline,” Harper said. “We only have a short window.”

Typically the road opens around the first week of January and closes around the first week of March. He says that likely will not happen this year.

The shorter window is a result of climate change. He says remote northern communities need help to have access to essential supplies and transport.

Keewatin Tribal Council (KTC) Chief Walter Wastesicoot says communities started worrying about winter roads in November because of the unusually high temperatures and a lack of snow. The Keewatin Tribal Council represents 11 communities spread throughout northern Manitoba.

“People enjoy the warm weather, but for me, it’s scary,” Wastesicoot said. “Winter seasons … have been shorter and shorter, and it’s not going to be long into the future when there’s no winter road season.”

He says Canada and Manitoba have ignored the needs of KTC First Nations, nine of which live without access to Manitoba all-season roads.

Winter road trends

Winter roads serve 30,000 Manitobans in 22 communities. The roads see 2,500 shipments of goods yearly, including fuel, construction materials, heavy equipment and store supplies.

In 2023 the roads in the northern part of the province all opened by Feb. 4, and all but four roads further south opened by Feb. 6.

All winter roads were closed by April 14, 2023.

Travel is not permitted on any closed winter road or when temperatures are -5 C or milder.

This means it will be a challenging year to open winter roads in northern Manitoba.

In Norway House, the average high in December was -1.9 C. The historical climate average high in the community in December is -13 C.

Island Lake, which includes communities that are fly-in most of the year until the ice roads open, faces a similar situation. The community’s average high in December was -3.8 C — well above December’s historical climate average high of -15.6 C.

Oscar McDougall is the capital project director at St. Theresa Point.

Winter road construction began in November and now they’re waiting for more snow as they work to open the road.

He says the road is essential as it connects Island Lake — a community of around 16,000, including Garden Hill, Red Sucker Lake, St. Theresa Point and Wasagamack First Nations — to Southern Manitoba.

They usually try to have it open by Jan. 20.

“This year because of the warm weather … I’m not sure we can make the 20th, but, we’re we’re working on it,” McDougall said.

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