Wharf worries: Northern Alberta community worries about the privatization of their port

A fly-in northern Alberta hamlet is concerned about the privatization of the community's port, which is one of the  few points of escape should there be a wildfire and is the main way the community receives food and fuel during the summer months. 

Transport Canada has said it's in talks with an unnamed company to take ownership of Fort Chipewyan's main wharf.

But community members fear the transfer in ownership might leave them high and dry should the new owners decide the wharf is unprofitable.

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam is worried about what could happen if the port were to close and a wildfire burned through the old growth boreal forest that surrounds it.

"We look at the wharf as our emergency route," Adam said. "If we don't have access to our docks if there's a big fire, that cuts off access to the airport. Our only access out of the community is this port."

David Thurton/ CBC

Fort Chipewyan is a Cree, Dene and Métis community of about 1,000 people located north of Fort McMurray on the shores of Lake Athabasca.

The community is one of Alberta's oldest and forms part of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

The port is used for recreational fishing and for receiving large barges six months of the year.

While community members and freight can always be flown in or driven in on the ice road from about December to April, the river is the preferred option for some due to the cost and the size of the freight.

'Private companies you never really know'

"It is a very highly used piece of infrastructure for the community," said Wood Buffalo councillor Bruce Inglis. "We have many months of boating season here. Boats are the main transportation systems in the summer.

"Private companies, you never really know what their reason or motivation for taking over is."

In a statement, Transport Canada said despite the community's concerns it will move ahead with the transfer of the port.

"We understand that Fort Chipewyan port facility is important to the community," spokesperson Julie Leroux said in an email.

Leroux said some years it costs as much as $56,000 to operate the inland port.

David Thurton/ CBC

She said Transport Canada approached other federal departments, the province and Indigenous and regional governments but "no interest was received."

The federal government announced in April 2015 a new program to facilitate the transfer of 50 Transport Canada-owned port facilities to local interests. Fort Chipewyan is the only port in Alberta to be included under the program.

Until the transfer process has been completed, Transport Canada cannot comment further, Leroux said.

In the meantime, both Adam and Inglis say they'll keep voicing their concerns.

And the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said it will argue the federal government has an obligation under Treaty 8 to ensure the safe navigation of First Nations people on waterways.

The Fort Chipewyan Port was built in the 1920s by the federal department of public works and was transferred to Transport Canada in 1987.

Connect with David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn or email him at david.thurton@cbc.ca