Winter Road Dilemma: Opening up east side provides hope for First Nations

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre


Once again the winter road system that services isolated communities in Manitoba`s north has been closed early due to warm weather.
What are the possible solutions for the people that occupy this pristine part of the Province? Many not familiar with the east side of Lake Winnipeg are all too familiar with the images that appear in the media usually associated with the problems associated with poverty: overcrowded and dilapidated housing conditions, alcohol, drug dealing, bootlegging and suicide rates that boggle the imagination. Some who have never lived amongst the people in their east side communities argue for shutting down these reserves or moving them closer to urban centres and the problems will be solved.  
But where would these people be moved to exactly? How about Winnipeg and the empty Kapyong Barracks? The problem with that solution, however, is the culture shock that would inevitably ensue in bringing together nearby residents in Winnipeg with those coming from isolated reserves. Things could quickly collide and not in a necessarily good way.
It is not possible any more to live off the land or survive in a fishing industry that is no longer viable. These industries used to keep these communities self-sufficient, but those days are gone. This problem is much deeper than that for the people of the bush. Looking at the example of the relocation of the Innu of Labrador provides some illustration of this problem. In that case, the federal government thought relocation was the answer. New homes were built on the new location and clean potable water was made readily available, as was a modern sewage system that serviced the homes.
The move did not solve problems associated with alcohol and drug abuse, as well as the lack of employment opportunities. Before they knew it, suicides were on the rise again. For the federal government to entertain what failed in Labrador by promoting the idea of relocating Manitoba`s isolated reserves would cost approximately $500 million dollars or more to relocate each community. Also, how many communities would have to be relocated from isolation? The numbers would clearly boggle the imagination.
Manitoba`s government and Manitoba Hydro may hold the key to solving the winter road dilemma by re-thinking the Bipole 111 route. The decision to relocate bipole 111 to the west side of Lake Winnipeg should be reversed. It is estimated the east side route could reduce the costs to the tune of $600 million dollars. A better plan would involve these savings being re-directed to an all weather road system to expand the road that is already being built to the communities of Bloodvein, Berens River and Poplar River First Nation.
Let us not look at the total kilometres to expand an all weather road system, but take into account the roughly 60 kilometres for each of the three communities. If a road were required for example to Pine Falls there would be no question the road would be built.
Let us go deeper into the positive results of expanding the road system to the Island Lake communities. Currently the isolated communities are in a state of emergency with the early shut down of the winter road system. Essential supplies will now have to be airlifted in and the costs will ring into the millions of dollars. This is happening almost every year now.
An all weather road could create an economic boom for these communities. We often talk about protecting Manitoba`s boreal forest and its pristine wilderness, but many do not get the chance to enjoy this pristine wilderness as access is very limited. Anyone who has had the opportunity to visit the Island Lake area is quickly in awe of the lakes and rivers that connect these communities. Those who travel by water taxi will quickly see the potential of an all weather road system that will bring others who can enjoy what we have in our own back yard and provide much needed economic potential for First Nations.
Native bands stepping up to the plate could benefit by opening service stations, restaurants, accommodations plus a host of other economic opportunities along the new road. First Nation entrepreneurs could also develop cottage development sites for those wanting to enjoy what these isolated communities take for granted. The potential for economic development is unlimited.
The winter road system will not disappear altogether as there would still be outlaying communities that would still rely on winter roads for goods. Could Garden Hill, if serviced by an all weather road, be a supply depot for goods ready to transport to these communities once the winter roads open up?
We have the chance of saving dollars over the years with the shorter unreliable winter road system by building an all weather road to the Island Lake region. Most importantly, we now have a chance of giving a much needed economic boost to the isolated communities, as well as providing a chance to experience and enjoy this pristine area of our province.