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

The warmest winter on record in Canada has spelled widespread issues for First Nations in northern Ontario connected to a network of winter roads built over frozen land, rivers and lakes. A winter road which crosses Shoal Lake to Shoal Lake 40 First Nation is photographed on Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

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

There were just 11 days when the road – a roughly seven-kilometre stretch of packed snow and ice connecting the island First Nation to the mainland – was open.

That meant delayed projects, tougher access to groceries and health-care and an increasingly unpredictable season for the community’s roughly 250 people as the First Nation grapples with how to adapt to a future shaped by global warming.

“Everyone I’ve talked to cannot remember a shorter season,” David McKenzie, the First Nation’s executive director, said in an interview this week. “We’re pretty sure it’s the shortest ever.”

The warmest winter on record in Canada has spelled widespread issues for First Nations in northern Ontario connected to a network of winter roads built over frozen land, rivers and lakes.

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The Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nations in Ontario, issued a state of emergency in February over ice road conditions.

The roads are a lifeline for 32 remote First Nations, a way to more easily, and affordably, deliver everything from basic goods to construction materials to be used in summer.

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

The uncertainty of how and when people will get on and off the island, “can cause a bit of anxiety in people,” McKenzie said.

“For us locally here, we did not have as many people getting out onto the land, on the lakes, around our lakes, to do the ice fishing and, you know, their traditional, wintertime activities because the ice was a concern,” McKenzie said of the community on Lake Temagami.

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Farther north, Chief Russell Wesley of the Cat Lake First Nation said his community received money from the federal government to buy a snow machine used to help lay down the winter road.

“Travelling on our winter roads is dangerous,” he said during a news conference at Queen’s Park this month. “The winter roads has water crossings made more treacherous and unpredictable by climate change.”

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Canada is warming faster than the rest of the world, in part due to retreating extents of snow and ice. While experts note El Niño, the natural climate pattern marked by weakening trade winds and shifting waters in the Pacific Ocean, contributed to this winter’s record warmth, many have blamed human-caused climate change as the main driver.

In Temagami First Nation, the community is accessible by barge in the summer. Some fly-in First Nations to the north, on the other hand, have no option besides trucks on the winter roads to move material and equipment too large to fit on small planes.

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

But there are still setbacks. The community planned to truck over a “mini home” on the winter road to be used as transition housing for people in crisis, McKenzie said.

“We had to re-evaluate our plans, and we’re going to be barging it this summer instead. But what that means is the community does not have this needed resource for perhaps another three or four months,” he said.

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

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“We’ve been experiencing things like having to haul the food bank food across on snow machines, taking elders to doctor’s appointments all winter long on snow machines,” he said.

“And believe me, when an elder has to go in for a doctor’s or necessary medical appointment … to ask them to get on a sleigh behind a snow machine as part of that is a big ask.”

The ice will also eventually get too thin and make the snowmobile shuttle too dangerous to operate. When that happens, there will be an interim period – what McKenzie called the “break up” or the “in-between” season – where residents are effectively stranded on the island until the ice breaks up and boats can again pass safely, McKenzie said.

That season appears to be getting longer, McKenzie said. What used to typically be a four- or five-day stretch has turned into two weeks in some years, he said.

The community, he said, has a helicopter company on retainer next week in case of emergency during that season, but residents are otherwise being urged to stock up on groceries and get prescriptions filled in anticipation of the break up.

“We have to be prepared for this uncertainty,” he said. “But believe me, when you’re dealing with elders and young people who do have things that they have to get off the island for, this uncertainty does not make their lives any easier.”

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McKenzie said the community may eventually look to get funding for an additional airboat – a watercraft propelled by an aircraft-type propeller – or an icebreaker.

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

“Locally here, we just have the issue of how do we get off and on the island.”

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