Short season on southern Ontario ice road makes First Nations life unpredictable

This winter marked the shortest ice road season anyone can remember in the Temagami First Nation.

There were only 11 days when the highway — a roughly seven-kilometre stretch of packed snow and ice that connects the island’s First Nation to the mainland — was open.

That’s meant project delays, harder access to food and health care and an increasingly unpredictable season for the community’s roughly 250 people as the First Nation struggles with how to adapt to a future shaped by global warming.

“Everyone I’ve spoken to has no recollection of a shortened season,” David McKenzie, chief executive of the First Nations, said in an interview this week. “We’re pretty sure it’s the shortest ever.”

Canada’s warmest winter on record has meant widespread problems for First Nations in northern Ontario connected to a network of winter roads built over frozen lands, rivers and lakes.

The Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nations in Ontario, declared a state of emergency in February due to icy roads.

Roads are a lifeline for 32 remote First Nations, a way to more easily and affordably deliver everything from commodities to construction materials for summer use.

Temagami First Nation, the southernmost of those communities, was the first to close its winter road for the season on March 1, according to updates released by NAN and the First Nation.

The uncertainty about how and when people will get on and off the island “may cause a little bit of anxiety for people,” McKenzie said.

“For us locally, we didn’t have as many people going out onto the land, onto the lakes, around our lakes, for ice fishing and, you know, their traditional winter activities because ice was a concern.” McKenzie said of the community at Lake Temagami.

Further north, Chief Russell Wesley of the Cat Lake First Nation said his community received money from the federal government to purchase a snowplow used to help lay the winter road.

“Traveling on our winter roads is dangerous,” he said during a news conference at Queen’s Park this month. “Winter roads have water crossings that have become more treacherous and unpredictable due to climate change.”

Canada is warming faster than the rest of the world, partly due to decreasing snow and ice. While experts point out that El Niño, the natural weather pattern marked by weakening trade winds and moving waters in the Pacific Ocean, contributed to this winter’s record heat, many have blamed human-caused climate change. as the main driver.

In Temagami First Nation, the community is accessible by barge during the summer. On the other hand, some First Nations arriving north by plane have no choice but to take trucks on winter roads to transport materials and equipment too large to fit on small planes.

“We haven’t experienced the major delays to any infrastructure projects that some of the more northern First Nations are likely to have,” McKenzie said.

But there are still setbacks. The community planned to move a truck over a “tiny house” on the winter road to use as transitional housing for people in crisis, McKenzie said.

“We’ve had to reevaluate our plans and instead, we’re going to break into it this summer. But what that means is that the community won’t have this necessary resource until maybe three or four months from now,” he said.

While the ice is too thin for larger vehicles, the First Nation was still operating a snowmobile shuttle service to the mainland as of this week. But relying on those machines to get on and off the island also has its challenges, McKenzie said.

“We’ve been experiencing things like having to transport food from the food bank on snow machines, taking the elderly to doctor’s appointments all winter on snow machines,” he said.

“And believe me, when an elderly person has to go to a doctor or a necessary medical appointment… asking them to get on a sled behind a snow machine as part of that is a big ask.”

Over time, the ice will also become too thin and make snowmobile transportation too dangerous to operate. When that happens, there will be an interim period, what McKenzie called the “breakup” or “intermediate” season, in which residents will be effectively stranded on the island until the ice breaks up and ships can safely pass through again. McKenzie said. .

That season appears to be dragging on, McKenzie said. What used to be a four- or five-day period has turned into two weeks in some years, she said.

The community, he said, has a helicopter company hired next week in case of an emergency during that season, but otherwise residents are urged to stock up on food and obtain prescriptions in anticipation of the breakout.

“We have to be prepared for this uncertainty,” he said. “But believe me, when it comes to the elderly and young people who have things that require them to leave the island, this uncertainty does not make their lives any easier.”

McKenzie said the community could eventually seek funding for an additional hydrofoil (a vessel powered by an airplane-type propeller) or an icebreaker.

“I think we have to adjust our infrastructure plans to deal with this in the long term as well, and not just hope that climate change can be rectified,” he said.

“At the local level, here we only have the question of how to get on and off the island.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2024.

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