Canada's Ice Roads Are Melting — And That Is Terrible News for Aboriginal Communities


Aboriginal chiefs in Canada are blaming climate change for water and food shortages on their reserves this winter.

Isolated reserves in northern Ontario rely on ice roads to transport supplies in the winter, but warmer weather means those roads haven't frozen yet, so food and water are in short supply.

"Everything you can imagine," Rosemary McKay, Chief of Bearskin Lake First Nation, told VICE News. "They're running out of food and anything they need in their home. Sugar, tea, flour, you name it."

Bearskin Lake First Nation's winter road is typically thick enough at this time of year for trucks to cross, but the ice is unseasonably thin and only skidoos are able to make the crossing right now.

Because it lacks a year-round access road, in the warmer months, water, food, fuel and other supplies are flown into Bearskin Lake. That also makes them more expensive to buy at the community's northern store. People look forward to the winter months when these supplies are transported over the winter road, making them cheaper, McKay explained.

"I'm really concerned with everything that's happening," McKay said about the condition of the winter road. "We shouldn't even have to buy water."

The thinness of the ice road is exacerbating the existing problem of lack of clean water in Bearskin Lake. Like 93 other First Nations across Canada, excluding British Columbia, they are currently under "boil water" and "do not consume" advisories, meaning they rely on bottled water deliveries.

Related: These People Haven't Had Clean Water to Drink for 20 Years in Canada

Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day said the problem of melting ice roads is widespread across Ontario, and he's heard similar complaints from First Nations in Manitoba.

"You could travel the entire north on these roads, however you can't do that now," he said of northern Ontario.

He blames climate change for the ice road conditions.

Historically these winter roads are functional 70 to 80 days out of the year, but now their duration is as little as 28 days, he said. Supplies aren't the only concern — he also worries about the social impact on families who can't visit each other in the winter. Some of those communities, including Bearskin Lake, have declared crisis situations due to high levels of suicide, and he worries there will be a social cost to the melting roads.

For Bearskin Lake, it's not the first winter that the ice road has been delayed, prompting questions about how to prepare for the years to come.

"If I can't have a winter road, what's it going to be [like] for my grandchildren?" McKay said.

"We're going to have to build an all-season road, that's the only way."

She's looking forward to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's promise of big infrastructure investments, calling the new government "a ray of light."

Watch the VICE Canada documentary, Canada's Waterless Communities: Shoal Lake 40 

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @HilaryBeaumont