It was the beginning of February, and Garden Hill First Nation was nearly out of fuel.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do when we run out,” Chief Charles Knott told media at a press conference in Winnipeg.

With just a week’s worth of their annual supply left, school buses, water trucks and emergency vehicles would soon be at risk of running dry, Knott said. Garden Hill was declaring a state of emergency, and the First Nation wasn’t alone.

With warm weather delaying the construction of Manitoba’s winter-road network, the Anisininew Okimawin (also known as the Island Lake Tribal Council) First Nations of Garden Hill, Red Sucker Lake, Wasagamack and St. Theresa Point gathered to warn of a looming crisis.

The chiefs of four Manitoba First Nations and the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (right to left) wear traditional headdresses at a press conference declaring a state of emergency due to winter-road delays in Winnipeg
First Nations leaders in Manitoba have called for all-season roads and other support to navigate the winter-road crisis for several decades. The government has increased financial support for road-building, but has not invested in permanent solutions. Photo: Mikaela Mackenzie / Winnipeg Free Press

Nearby Pauingassi, Little Grand Rapids and Poplar River declared a similar state of emergency the same day. Days later, Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 northern Ontario First Nations in Treaty 9 and Treaty 5 territories, followed suit.

“The winter road season should be well underway, but temperatures remain unseasonably warm, making them extremely dangerous and unsafe to use,” Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said.

More than 20 communities in Manitoba and nearly 70 northern communities nationwide are fly-in only for most of the year, and rely on a window lasting just six to eight weeks in the winter to import their annual supply of food, fuel, medical supplies, construction materials and other vital infrastructure on a network of roads built from ice and snow.

For the 18,000 people living in the Island Lake region 500 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg — and hundreds of kilometres from the nearest paved roads — the delayed start to winter threatened a dire situation. Only a handful of the more than 800 truckloads of goods expected to travel north each year had made it to this cluster of communities by the beginning of February. Several roads had not yet been built; others were newly constructed but already deteriorating under unseasonably warm weather and rare bouts of rain. With temperatures uncertain, no one was sure when the road network would be finished — or how long it would be able to stay frozen.

Snow lines the winter road to Fort Chipewyan, Alberta
Winter roads across Canada are often built and maintained by members of the communities they serve. The roads can take several weeks to build — or longer with unpredictable weather. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

Unseasonable winter weather is becoming more common across the country but especially in the North, where temperatures are rising at roughly triple the global average, permafrost is melting and the winter-road network, described as “a lifeline” for remote nations, is becoming increasingly difficult to build and maintain.

Researchers estimate the winter-road season is already getting shorter and will continue to shrink with each passing decade. According to projections from the Canadian Climate Institute, more than half of the country’s winter roads are expected to become unviable by the 2050s and almost all winter roads will be unusable by the 2080s.

With few clear-cut solutions, many remote First Nations wait anxiously each fall for the cold to come. They are fighting to adapt to a rapidly changing climate that threatens to make food, housing and infrastructure more difficult to access for tens of thousands of residents.

Thousands of kilometres of winter roads need cold weather, snow and round-the-clock crews to build

There are about 8,000 kilometres of federally recognized winter roads across Canada’s North, as well as another 2,000 kilometres built by private companies, typically to service mining and other resource extraction projects in remote areas. Most of these roads are found in Ontario, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories, with a smattering in Saskatchewan and Alberta. 

Some roads are constructed over swamps, muskeg and permafrost, while others are built over frozen lakes, rivers and creeks. Some are constructed by local contractors, others hire crews and equipment from farther south. Many are funded by provincial, territorial and federal governments, but some are paid for by local municipalities or private companies. 

In Manitoba, about 30,000 people rely on winter roads each year. The network comprises more than 20 road segments spanning over 2,200 kilometres. Most open sometime in late December or early January and last an average 50 to 55 days until spring arrives in March or early April. Each year, the roads play host to about 3,000 semi-trucks and countless other seasonal travellers. 

In recent years, winters have become more challenging to predict, according to Doug Jansen, Manitoba’s northern winter roads manager. Over the nearly 20 years he’s worked in the winter road department, he’s noticed subtle changes in weather patterns that have made it hard to get roads built on time.

“It’s not as extreme cold for long periods of time as it used to be,” Jansen said in an interview. “We get a bit more of maybe freezing rain in February, that’s not too common, but we’re seeing that a bit more.”

Most years, Jansen begins monitoring for freezing temperatures at the beginning of November. To determine when winter-road construction can begin, the province tracks what are known as “freezing-degree days” — a cumulative measurement of sub-zero temperatures over time. For example, if the average temperature on a given day is -20 C, the annual “freezing-degree day” figure increases by 20. Only when the “freezing-degree day” figure reaches 300 can light construction equipment begin to safely navigate the northern terrain.

When winter-road construction season starts in earnest, it can be frenetic. Crews have to work quickly to capitalize on cold snaps and snowfalls to create a layer of packed snow. That snow traps frost in the ground to build a base layer of ice. Some crews work round the clock at the beginning of the season to make sure roads open as early as possible.

As the ground and waterways freeze and more snow falls, crews arrive with heavier equipment to smooth over bumps and holes on land routes, flood the over-ice sections and create a thick, stable road surface capable of withstanding hundreds of transport trucks weighing as much as 39.5 tonnes.

Tire tracks cross patches of snow on a frozen Lake Athabasca in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta

According to Jansen, any number of unpredictable weather conditions can interrupt road construction. If the temperatures rise over -5 C, trucks are barred from travelling. If it rains, or warm temperatures persist, the roads can start to melt.

Jansen said there was very little snow this winter in northern Manitoba — and without snow, which acts as the asphalt of the winter-road system, crews had little material with which to build. The cold came late, too, leaving crews waiting for rivers, creeks and lakes to freeze. With spots of warmer weather, faster moving waterways, already what Jansen calls the “weakest link” of the road network, melt and deteriorate.

For communities dependent on winter roads, the effects were devastating.

"Right now the winter roads that have been completed are deteriorating to the point where one chief told me driving on their winter road is like driving on a sponge,” Grand Chief Walter Wastesicoot, who represents 11 First Nations through the Keewatin Tribal Council, said in February.

"This is critical. The governments of Manitoba and Canada cannot sit idly by and ignore the impacts of climate change."

Rapid warming in Canada’s North making winter road system unpredictable

Panic started setting in for the Island Lake communities in January. In years past, the cold weather would typically arrive in November, roadwork would be well underway by Christmas and trucks would be lumbering up the ice routes come the new year.

This year, according to Anisininew Okimawin Grand Chief Scott Harper, road construction had yet to get underway in January. Temperatures had averaged around -5 C in December — a far cry from historic averages of around -20 C — and despite a couple weeks of mid-January cold, temperatures climbed again toward the end of the month.

“The warm weather came, it started raining and that deteriorated the road,” Harper said in an interview. “That really put us in panic mode.”

Anisininew Okimawin grand chief Scott Harper wears a suit and traditional headdress while declaring a state of emergency due to the winter roads in Manitoba's Island Lake region
Anisininew Okimawin Grand Chief Scott Harper is still unsure whether his community will be able to get all of its supplies for the year. He's in regular contact with local leadership to keep track of progress. Photo: Mikaela Mackenzie / Winnipeg Free Press

Winter roads on the east side of the province that had already opened, closed after melting in the warmer weather. The 294-kilometre road that connects Island Lake to the end of the provincial highway system at Berens River First Nation still had yet to open (and wouldn’t open until the third weekend in February). Truck traffic ground to a halt. The winter-road season was again delayed.

"The winter-road season has been getting shorter and shorter and shorter," Harper said. "At the rate that it’s going … to us it's pretty much not going to be feasible to have a winter road."

According to an analysis by The Narwhal and Winnipeg Free Press of winter-road season lengths from 2004 to 2023, the overall winter-road season has hovered around an average length of 58 days, despite repeated warm winters and late road-season starts.

But the fluctuations in mid-season weather have brought new uncertainties for communities that rely on the road network. While the average season length across all roads has been steady, the roads serving the eastern side of Manitoba have seen season lengths range from a single week to more than 70 days, depending on the weather. The road from Berens River to St. Theresa Point, first built in 2017, has seen season lengths ranging from 62 days in 2019 to 31 days the next year.

The James Bay winter road in Ontario, which connects three First Nations to Moosonee, opened late this year. Already in early March, the road had to be closed due to warm weather. Other communities have struggled to get their roads open to heavy traffic at all. Temagami First Nation, located about 90 kilometres northeast of Sudbury, uses the southernmost ice road in Ontario. The community of 250 people, located on Bear Island on Lake Temagami, uses an ice road across the water to access essential services during the winter. This year, the road opened to car traffic late, in mid-February. Before that, the nation had to shuttle community members across on snowmobiles. Even now, the ice isn’t thick enough for heavier equipment: on Feb. 27, the nation sent out a bulletin to members to tell them the island’s garbage containers were full and it wasn’t clear if the ice would be thick enough at all this year for garbage to be removed.

"When you think of the North, you think colder temperatures — that's not the case,” Vincent Simms, a foreman on the Red Sucker Lake winter-road crew, said during the February press conference.

For decades, Canada’s North has been warming far faster than the rest of the country — and the global average. Over the last 50 years, as average global temperatures have risen about 0.8 C, Canada’s temperatures have risen an average 1.7 C and the North has seen an average 2.3 C rise in temperature.

Winter road crew foreman Vincent Simms wears a dark jacket and blue cap while speaking at a press conference declaring a state of emergency due to the winter roads in Manitoba
Vincent Simms, who has 15 years of experience building winter roads, said he's noticed many changes in conditions in recent years, adding the warming temperatures and melting permafrost are becoming a serious concern. Photo: Mikaela Mackenzie / Winnipeg Free Press

That disproportionate warming has had a drastic impact on northern life, and the winter road network is no exception.

“The permafrost that's needed, it's not there. We're breaking through muskeg with our heavy equipment, which we need to construct the roads,” Simms said. “Climate change is a reality, and it's becoming more difficult every year to build these winter roads.”

Short winter-road seasons aren’t a new phenomenon. The spring of 1998 came early in Manitoba, cutting the road season dramatically short and costing the province $14 million in freight costs to move the remaining shipments of vital goods into the Island Lake region by air. Another crisis struck in 2007 after several years of warm weather resulted in road seasons as short as six days and kept some roads from opening at all. The province responded by significantly increasing its winter-road budget, which has hovered between $9 and $9.5 million every year since. Short winter-road seasons made headlines again in 2010, 2012, 2016 and as recently as 2021, which, at an average 45 days, was the shortest winter road season in nearly 20 years.

Winter roads 'a lifeline' for remote nations

A short winter-road season can have a domino effect on remote communities, Garrison Settee, Grand Chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents 26 northern First Nations, explained in an interview.

“The cost of food and fuel and everything in the community is higher,” Settee said.

Long-standing federal and provincial policies imposed on northern First Nations have already created an infrastructure gap compared to southern urban centres, resulting in diminished access to affordable and adequate housing, healthy food, electricity and drinking water.

Research has shown, for example, the rate of food insecurity in northern First Nations is eight times the national average. Fresh produce like apples, tomatoes and bananas are, on average, between 120 and 175 per cent more expensive in winter-road communities; meat products average between 46 and 77 per cent more expensive.

Because of the high cost of living, residents rely on the winter-road season to travel south and stock up on an annual supply of basic needs, from cleaning supplies and groceries to larger purchases like vehicles, fishing equipment and appliances. Without winter-road access, “they suffer financially to be able to meet their needs,” Settee added.

An ice road cuts through the snow across Lake Athabasca in Alberta
Importing supplies by winter road is expensive — contributing to high costs of groceries and other goods in remote First Nations — but it's the cheapest option for many communities. Air freight can double or even triple transportation costs. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

For band councils, the annual fuel shipments are a high priority. Four winter-road access communities in Manitoba rely on diesel for power, making those shipments “very critical” to their everyday energy needs, Settee said. Most other remote communities are working to restock with enough fuel to power emergency vehicles, school buses and service vehicles for a full year. Residents, too, need affordable fuel for driving, hunting and fishing equipment.

“It affects everything in our community: our medical needs, our food, water, fuel, everything we need for a whole year,” Harper said. “It is very vital. It is a lifeline to us.”

Any food or fuel that doesn’t arrive by winter road has to be delivered by air freight, which can double or triple the costs for communities and residents.

And then there are the infrastructure needs that can’t be flown in when winter road seasons fall short.

More than 35 per cent of First Nations people live in overcrowded housing in Manitoba — the highest proportion in the country — while about 30 per cent live in homes that need repairs. But construction supplies for housing or, in the case of one Island Lake community, a new school, are too large to be loaded onto planes. In 2011, more than 170 tonnes of construction material, 15 housing units and two community centres were transported on Ontario’s winter roads. Without the road network, new housing is near-impossible to build.

Chemicals used in water and sewage treatment must be brought in by truck, so too for many medical supplies, bulk cleaning supplies and vehicles like school buses — which also rely on the winter roads to be towed into larger communities for repairs.

Eabametoong First Nation lost its only school to arson on Jan. 25. The community of 1,600 people north of Thunder Bay, Ont., has also been under a boil-water advisory since 2002, and waiting for two new fire trucks that hadn’t arrived because the winter road wasn’t strong enough. Without the right firefighting equipment, the community had few options to try to save the building. Eabemetoong is now trying to get supplies shipped in to build a temporary replacement.

Cat Lake First Nation, located about 180 kilometres north of Sioux Lookout, Ont., had to buy a snow-making machine from Alberta to get enough material for its winter road this year. The road opened late and suffered a 17-day interruption when near-zero temperatures melted the ice.

Though the road is open to heavy traffic now, Cat Lake declared a state of emergency on March 3 after a fire destroyed its nursing station and caused problems with its water treatment plant. The community will need trailers to temporarily house the nursing station, but another looming thaw in the forecast could make that a challenge.

Tire tracks on an ice road across Lake Athabasca in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta
According to Anisininew Okimawin Grand Chief Scott Harper, ice thickness has been dwindling in recent years, making the winter roads more precarious to travel for residents and truck drivers alike. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

“We have a crisis in our communities right now. We’re trying to deal with all the social issues, there’s already overcrowding in homes,” Harper said. “We have to get everything in. If we don’t, it puts them in a further vulnerable state.”

For thousands of people, the winter roads are also a vital social link to friends and family in nearby communities. Youth rely on the roads for social events and school field trips. Many communities take advantage of the winter roads to restock supplies like hockey equipment to support year-round programming.

When that access is cut short, the mental health impacts of isolation can be severe.

“It gives them some pride,” Harper said. “Staying home doing nothing, it does something to their mental state. We have to be creative, we have to get whatever we can to our communities.”

With few long-term solutions, communities relying on winter roads seek to adapt

For years, many remote First Nations in Manitoba have asked governments for support funding and building all-season roads to reduce the reliance on the winter-road network.

An all-season highway to Berens River was built in 2017 at a cost of $200 million, extending about 70 kilometres from Bloodvein, as part of a provincial commitment to help with the winter-road crisis. But replacing all-winter roads with permanent links has been dismissed for decades as too costly or complex on the remote landscape.

The Canadian Climate Institute estimates it would cost the Northwest Territories about $2 billion over 20 years to replace winter roads with all-season routes — “an unprecedented level of infrastructure spending.”

Despite the hefty price tag, the Island Lake nations presented the provincial government a proposal at the end of January to extend the all-season road to St. Theresa Point, replacing the often unreliable 250-kilometre stretch of winter road at an estimated cost of more than $500 million.

MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee stands against a colourful background as Island Lake First Nations declared a state of emergency due to a delayed winter road season in Manitoba
Grand Chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Garrison Settee is hopeful the task force established to navigate the winter-road crisis this year will be able to make a plan toward long-term solutions for Manitoba First Nations. Photo: Mikaela Mackenzie / Winnipeg Free Press

Settee said communities won’t back down until there are long-term solutions and commitments in place.

“It’s 2024 now and we cannot just be reacting to crises that happen because of the winter roads,” Settee said. “It’s not acceptable anymore to have our First Nations trapped in their communities without having access to winter roads.”

In an interview, Manitoba Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Lisa Naylor said an all-season road “can’t be done alone,” and would require significant support from the federal government (which provides an additional $4.5 million annually to Manitoba’s winter-road network).

​​"Ultimately this really needs to be a national conversation about those implications of climate change,” Naylor said.

After the First Nations declared a state of emergency, the province established a task force composed of technicians, Indigenous leaders and provincial representatives to help plan strategies to extend the length of the winter-road season despite climate impacts.

Naylor also noted the province helped facilitate extra labour this year to help finish the uncompleted roads as fast as possible.

A black truck drives towards Fort Albany from Kashechewan on the James Bay winter road
Many communities have begun adapting to changing winter-road conditions with more planning and monitoring, while the province is providing more support to contracting crews and investing in semi-permanent bridges over some weaker points in the road network. Photo: Carrie Davis / The Narwhal

At a local level, Settee said chiefs have started planning the winter shipment logistics long in advance in response to the unpredictable weather.

“They’re more proactive than they’ve been in a decade,” he said. “Before the winter roads even open, they’re planning how they’re going to bring food, fuel and materials for their First Nations.”

Communities have also started to ramp up monitoring and traffic control, including lowering the weight limit for truck traffic, in order to preserve the roads as long as possible.

This year’s road season isn’t over yet. Harper won’t end the state of emergency in the Island Lake region until all communities have the fuel and supplies they need. He’s still waiting to hear whether local leaders have received enough fuel to last the year. There are still many truckloads of goods outstanding — and temperatures look to be unseasonably warm once again.

But across northern Manitoba, leaders and community members are holding out hope.

“As of right now, the winter roads in northern Manitoba are in good condition and operating normally with the cold weather,” Settee said. “That’s what we’re praying for. I’m hoping the climate will be on our side. That’s all we can do.”

With files from Emma McIntosh

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