Shortening ice road seasons threat to safety for northern Manitoba First Nation: NDP MP Niki Ashton
December 11, 2023 By Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun
The federal Liberals are leaving a Manitoba First Nation in danger and suffering, as shorter ice road seasons lead to isolation and “inhumane” conditions, a northern Manitoba MP says.
“It’s time for the feds to act for Wasagamack,” Churchill-Keewatinook Aski MP Niki Ashton said at a media conference in Ottawa where she was joined by the chief and council of the Wasagamack First Nation on Thursday.
“Prime Minister Trudeau got elected on a promise of reconciliation, and we are not seeing that in action.”
Ashton said she and members of the Wasagamack band council believe climate change is to blame for increasingly erratic weather patterns and for warmer than average temperatures this fall in Manitoba, and the federal government must step in to help the community get an airport, something she said they have been requesting for “decades.”
“As a result of the impacts of climate change we must act now,” Ashton said. “This is having devastating impacts to people’s health for those needing urgent medical care.
“Indigenous Services Canada, you need to step up and work with Wasagamack and with all partners to build an airport, and create all-weather access.”
Wasagamack, a community about 500 kilometres north of Winnipeg, continues to be one of the most isolated communities in Manitoba and in Canada, as it has no airport and no all-season road, and is only accessible via seasonal ice road.
As temperatures across the province continue to sit well above average for this time of year, Wasagamack First Nation Chief Walter Harper told reporters Thursday those temperatures have kept the ice road into his community shuttered.
That closure will have both short and long-term negative effects on the community, he said, as they struggle to acquire basic goods and to get residents who need medical or emergency care out.
“Normally we would have been driving already, but right now we can’t do anything,” Harper said. “We only have a certain window for transporting goods, and because there has been no snow and no cold, we are looking at a very short window of delivering goods this year.
Ashton added the road closure is “devastating” for those seeking medical care, including the elderly.
“As a result of the lack of an airport, people have to rely on inhumane conditions to get to medical care. People rely on boats, and helicopters that can’t always fly to get to an airport,” Ashton said.
“When you’re in that situation, those costly minutes and in some cases hours can mean life or death.”
Having no airport also makes it dangerous to live in the community when natural or man-made disasters strike, because of how difficult it can be to pull off an evacuation, Ashton said.
In August of 2017, Wasagamack was evacuated by boat due to wildfire. Once they reached the airport in St. Theresa Point they were flown to Winnipeg, Brandon or Thompson.
Ashton said the conditions of that evacuation were “inhumane.”
“We’ve heard what it was like to be evacuated in the middle of the night by boat because of wildfires closing in,” she said. “This is the lived experience of the people of Wasagamack, and we know with climate change it’s only going to get worse.”
Chief Harper said he also has a personal reason to build an airport as his mother, Bernadette Harper, died on April 23, 1998 when a helicopter taking people to a funeral crashed shortly after takeoff, killing his mother and one other.
“With the fact that this precarious situation led to the death of Chief Harper’s mother, this is heartbreaking,” Ashton said.
The Winnipeg Sun reached out to Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) for comment.
Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.