TVO.org’s John Michael McGrath travelled north on the Wetum Road to visit the James Bay communities of Moosonee and Moose Factory. Read more here.
MOOSONEE, Ont. — The argument for a permanent year-round road to James Bay is pretty simple for the people who live there.
“Bottom line, what we’re trying to do here is lower the cost of living,” says Ryan Small, director of technical services for the Mushkegowuk Council, a coalition of seven First Nations in Ontario’s northeast. “The time we get to use the winter roads is getting shorter and shorter. Building access for our communities is important.”
Building a year-round road from the closest point on the provincial highway system north to James Bay will be daunting. A minimum of 500 kilometres of two-lane gravel road will have to cross rivers and muskeg while clearing a path through stunted pine forests. The ground holds onto water eagerly, making it a sloppy muck in the summer and freezing solid in the winter. Combined with the bridges necessary for numerous water crossings, it’s a costly and challenging endeavour.
With federal and provincial funding, the council is studying how a permanent road from the provincial highway network could be built to James Bay. The hope is the road would connect northern James Bay communities not just with the south, but with one another.
The first winter roads to James Bay were built to serve the De Beers Victor Diamond Mine outside Attawapiskat, but were used only for the early construction of the mine itself, not its ongoing operations. When De Beers stopped maintaining the road, the Moose Cree First Nation began advocating for a replacement — what has now become the Wetum Road to Moosonee. It connects with the James Bay Road, which runs through the communities of Fort Albany, Kashechewan and Attawapiskat farther north. Warmer winter weather both hindered the Wetum Road’s construction early on and continues to cause concern about its viability. The Wetum Road opened this year on January 25 and closed on March 28 — giving communities on James Bay just 63 days of road access for the year.
The obvious answer is a year-round road, engineered to withstand the special conditions of the James Bay lowlands. But if the proposition were easy, it would exist already. The Mushkegowuk Council is working with consultants to determine which one of four possible routes will balance the needs of different communities with possible negative impacts. Early consultations among the First Nations stakeholders have shown an enthusiasm for a permanent road.
“The study has already shown that people are serious about an all-season road,” says Mushkegowuk Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon. “There’s going to be a social impact for sure… But the opportunities it will bring and allow people to pursue, those are positive impacts relative to a community with no opportunities at all.”
The terrain of the James Bay lowlands will be a challenge for any road. The soils are wet, meaning construction will require special care, and the earth is more prone to heave during freeze-thaw cycles. Then there’s the sheer scale of distance the road must cover.
“It’s a large area, to cross and connect the provincial highway to these communities — and not just connect them to the province, but to each other,” says Andrew Harkness, a director at the engineering firm of Morrison Hershfield who’s overseeing the feasibility study. That means replacing the role of both the Wetum Road and the James Bay Road north.
Another challenge will be obtaining material for the road bed itself. Finding a nearby source of crushed stone or gravel could prove challenging.
“In the south, there’s a lot of material for road-building, but it’s still relatively expensive to build in the south,” Harkness says. “There’s relatively less material in the lowlands.”
Choosing a route for the road is yet another consideration. The engineers will have to avoid river crossings where possible, or figure out economical ways to bridge them. All of this will also need to take into account possible damage to culturally important sites on traditional Cree land.
“I wouldn’t say there’s a showstopper anywhere,” Harkness says of the study so far, “but there are factors that would differentiate between the different corridors.”
Moosonee Mayor Wayne Taipale says a connection with the south is important, but a road linking James Bay communities would help his community, which he calls “the hub of the north.” Currently the First Nations of Attawapiskat and Fort Albany are connected to Moosonee only by the ice road.
“Our economy depends a lot on people further north. They come here and shop in our stores,” he says.
He cautioned against assuming an all-weather road would be the best choice for James Bay communities, however. Because provincial jurisdiction doesn’t extend outside the roads of Moosonee itself (the Wetum and James Bay roads are policed by the Nishnawbe-Aski Police) many people in James Bay don’t own vehicles that can be legally operated on provincial highways. For them, extending the Ontario Northland train route that now ends in Moosonee north to Attawapiskat may offer more economic benefit.
But such economic opportunities raise concerns for some in Moosonee and among the Moose Cree. Aboriginal people have historic reasons for being wary of a sudden influx of newcomers in their communities, from violence and displacement to addictions and persecution. At one meeting to discuss the permanent road, one local resident raised the spectre of children being kidnapped and spirited out of their community. In the shadow of the damage done by residential schools, it’s a concern that proponents need to acknowledge and accommodate.
For now, it’s still early days. The study is expected to be complete in late 2017, at which point the final decision will be turned over to the people of the several First Nations in the Mushkegowuk Council. There’s nothing approaching a solid cost estimate, but Grand Chief Solomon says a “stab in the dark” figure would be $500 million to $700 million.
“I want to see it in my lifetime. I’ve got grandchildren growing up, and I want to see the opportunity for them, not the struggles that come from isolation.”
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