In the remote communities of Northern Ontario, climate change has lit a fuse on reconciliation

This column is an opinion by Tom Kehoe, a contractor in Thunder Bay, Ont., and a citizen of the Métis Nation of Ontario. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Pickle Lake, Ont., is where the road ends. Put any community north of there into Google Maps and it returns “No Routes Found.” You are at the terminus of Highway 599 and the most northern point of the provincial highway system; almost 300 kilometres from where you turned off the Trans Canada Highway in Ignace. There is nowhere farther to drive.

Except for one month of the year. 

First the muskeg freezes, then the lakes and finally the many bridge-free rivers. At that point the province gives the green light and the ice roads open. It begins with light loads and, weather-dependent, increases as the ice thickens. 

The trucks begin staging at Pickle in advance. Loads approaching 100,000 pounds of anything that is too heavy, too bulky or too volatile to be flown in during the other 11 months of the year. Building materials, medical equipment, heavy machinery, vehicles… the list is too long to detail. 

Missed turn leaves you stranded

This is truly no country for old men. The drive is physically and mentally taxing. Hundreds of kilometres of black spruce and ice. Daylight is at a premium. No rest stops along the route. The ice will get chopped up very quickly by the heavy loads, making for a bone-rattling ride. A missed turn will leave you stranded for hours or days. 

The destination is one of dozens of remote First Nations. Fly-in only communities. It is the one chance to restock and rebuild for the year ahead. There are no do-overs. Anything forgotten or undeliverable will have to wait until next year. 

At least that’s the plan. That plan is getting harder, however. 

This year, even with February average temperatures five degrees colder than normal, the ice roads were only open for about three weeks. In an average year that will be even shorter. Warmer than average, and they may not open at all. Critical supplies and materials will have to wait another year. 

We don’t hear much said about the impact of climate change on Indigenous reconciliation, but the impact is clear, and it’s potentially disastrous. 

Consider the cycle of forest fires and flooding that occurred in British Columbia over the last year. Modern, sophisticated infrastructure burned or washed away. Then consider the impressive deployment of labour and machinery that sprung into action to replace and repair roads, bridges and other critical infrastructure, often improving the previous iteration and making it more resilient to future disasters. 

Remote First Nations are experiencing the exact same cycle of disasters, yet are far more vulnerable to the repercussions. 

A Northern Ontario ice road cuts through a forest of black spruce.
This is truly no country for old men. The drive is physically and mentally taxing. Hundreds of kilometres of black spruce and ice, with no rest stops along the route, writes Tom Kehoe. (Mikey Williams)

Fires or floods require entire communities to be evacuated and flown hundreds of kilometres away. It has become a sad, annual tradition for many communities. Forced to reside for weeks in an unfamiliar, frequently hostile community. 

The infrastructure itself is already more vulnerable. Gravel roads and airstrips are more prone to being washed away. There are no storm sewers to divert floodwaters. You are surrounded by the boreal forest and the accompanying fire risk; enhanced by heat and drought. There are few, if any bridges across rivers with rapidly eroding riverbanks. 

If you are lucky enough to live in a community with clean water, there is one treatment plant with no backup. Power comes from one diesel-fired generation station. 

Which brings us back to the ice roads. Should any of this critical infrastructure fail, repair and replacement is not days away. Not even weeks or months. It is contingent on sustained cold weather the following February. Or the February following that. It’s potentially years until the necessary supplies and equipment traverse the frozen muskeg. 

So in these remote communities, climate change has lit a fuse on reconciliation. It has not only left them more vulnerable to natural disasters, but has increased the difficulty in getting them back to even a steady state. 

Already facing steep deficits in health care, nutrition, education and clean water, there is a real possibility that these levels will move backward if we are unable to reliably supply the necessary goods via the ice roads. 

Time is running out

The communities need to be asked what they most need. They need to be listened to, even if they don’t have the appropriate plan to execute. Discover what is needed then work together to provide the solutions. 

Time is running out. Many of the basic requirements for proper reconciliation will be delayed for a year or more if the ice road window shortens. 

Some options will just become more expensive as more resources are required to do the same work. More trucks, more drivers crammed into a shortened time frame. Or perhaps military helicopters to air lift in massive loads, since the gravel airstrips aren’t able to accommodate larger planes or jets. 

Other projects are going to be made permanently impossible. There will just be no way to transport in so many products that most places in Canada take for granted. 

To get out of a hole, first you have to put down the shovel. These communities are already in a hole, facing deficits in just about every necessity in life. Climate change is digging that hole deeper every season. Reconciliation is the goal, yet we are at a tipping point of moving backward. 

It’s time to move or risk your regret becoming irreparable and permanent. It’s time to first listen and then act. Quickly. Don’t expect the answers to be easy, just understand the longer you wait the harder they will become.

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