Manitoba - Grand Chief Ron Evans announced a state of emergency caused by the premature melt of northern Manitoba's winter roads Friday during a press conference. The announcement shadowed news of travellers stranded in norther Manitoba after early spring temperatures caused a thaw, turning the ice roads into muck. Evans stressed the urgency of the situation saying
“These communities are stranded and have no money to airlift in the essential supplies that were coming to them via the winter roads. If they run out of fuel and there is a fire or a medical emergency, there will be no way to help them in time so speed is of the essence.”
Evans also warned residents in northern Manitoba communities to stay off the roads.
The province closed
the roads only 32 hours after officially opening them this year. Normally the roads are open for up to eight weeks.
The ice roads constructed every winter in Manitoba's north have provided a life-line for 16 northern communities with the south, as well as allowing for travel between communities and the import of foods and other supplies that cannot be flown in. But the early thaw has caused the 2,200 kilometers of roads to turn into mud. While it is not known how many people were in trouble on the former ice roads, the past week saw reports
of nearly 24 people stranded. Bad weather earlier in the week hampered efforts to rescue stranded people. Police are reportedly still searching for other stranded travellers in Northern Manitoba. On Friday news that a group of 13 stranded First Nations travellers had been located brought relief to anxious families.
The loss of ability to replenish supplies worries leaders of northern Manitoba communities. Evans, Wasagamack First Nation Chief Jerry Knott, and St. Theresa Point First Nation Chief David McDougall met with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) Friday morning to discuss the crisis. Evans announced
“INAC has agreed to take immediate action which includes funding to communities in crisis. If the dam breaks during a flood, you don’t work out the costs of fixing it; you take immediate action. Thankfully, INAC agrees with the First Nation leadership and is willing to take immediate action.”
During the press conference, Evans called
for the construction of permanent roads, and Manitoba's Premier said the province would look into permanent roads.
First Nation leaders are concerned that some businesses will use the crisis as an excuse to increase profits by raising the prices of goods, said Evans.
“Not only do we need the support of government, we have heard stories of companies capitalizing on this crisis by raising prices. Instead we ask that they work together with us to find solutions and not take advantage of those who are already severely disadvantaged.”
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) will be coordinating meetings between the province, the federal government and businesses while the emergency continues. The AMC will also meet every other day with the newly created Winter Roads Crisis Management Team.
Northern Manitoba First Nation leaders blame the early thaw on global warming. Chief Knott stated
"We have been advocating for years for faster approvals for the winter road supplies. We have also been watching the winter road season grow shorter and shorter due to climate change. Government departments have been aware for years that an emergency like this one was going to happen and now it has."
Northern First Nation leaders are concerned that fuel supplies will not be able to be replenished, as fuel cannot be flown-in. They also say plans to build a new school and housing also have to be put on hold, because the necessary materials are trucked in. Concerns about TB
due to overcrowding were also raised. TB has become an epidemic for Canadian Aboriginal and First Nations.
Northern Winnipeg has a topography that consists of muskeg, swamps, lakes and forests.
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs hosted the press conference at their offices on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg at 12:30 pm.
Update March 21:
The RCMP now say that 81 people have been saved
after getting stuck on the melted ice roads. A drop
in temperatures has helped, allowing the roads to re-freeze. It is uncertain whether anyone will attempt to truck supplies in to the communities in Northern Manitoba again this year. The federal government
is to fly in food and medical supplies.