Winter road connecting Fort Chipewyan and Fort Smith won't be built this year

·3 min read

Parks Canada will not build the winter road connecting Fort Chipewyan to Fort Smith, NWT. because leaders in both communities are concerned about the spread of COVID-19.

Since the start of the pandemic, access into the Northwest Territories has been restricted. Some exemptions have been made, including residents of Fort Fitzgerald and on-reserve members of the Mikisew Cree First Nation.

Fort Smith can be just as important as Fort McMurray for residents of the area, since people will also travel into NWT for work, health care, groceries and other services.

In a Tuesday statement, Parks Canada reported the NWT government would end this exemption if the winter road was built. After meeting with community members, it was decided the road would be cancelled.

"The need to support local public health orders and respect community concern is our top priority at this time," Tuesday's notice said.

There was already little enthusiasm for building the road this year. While Parks Canada met with local leaders about what to do, an October email sent to community leaders proposed cancelling the road this winter.

When winter arrives, Parks Canada usually builds a road heading northwest from Fort Chipewyan towards Moose Island. From there, an ice crossing over the Peace River is built and people follow a road straddling the boundaries of Wood Buffalo National Park until reaching Fort Smith.

Councillor Bruce Inglis, who represents Fort Chipewyan on municipal council, said he trusts Parks Canada made the correct decision.

However, he had hoped the winter road north would be built as an emergency route. The road would also help community members reach cabins in the Moose Lake and Rocky Point areas without ever crossing the territorial border.

“The only concern I had is preparedness in case we ever did need to access the north route quickly for any reason,” said Inglis. “Ice bridging takes a considerable amount of time to develop and it wouldn’t be used until February or March in an as-needed case.”

The cancelled winter road to Fort Smith comes as the route to Fort McMurray is delayed. That route was scheduled to open on Dec. 15, but warm weather and concerns about high water levels has made construction difficult.

The route is seeing progress with construction, said Inglis. However, there is no timeline for when heavy cargo—mainly fuel and groceries—can begin rolling north to Fort Chipewyan.

“It is our resupply link and it’s absolutely essential,” said Inglis. “We’ve evolved into being dependent on this winter road.”

Allan Adam, chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN), said the community will have fuel and food flown in if the road does not open soon.

In January 1998, the municipality closed the road and declared a state of emergency for Fort Chipewyan when ice crossings could not support more than 3,000 kilograms. Cargo planes from Yellowknife flew fuel into the community, while a heavy transport plane delivered food from Fort Smith.

This was narrowly avoided last February after a work crew from Saskatchewan strengthened the river ice at one crossing so fuel and cargo trucks could pass safely.

The Fort McMurray-to-Fort Chipewyan winter road will be used sparingly this year. Fort Chipewyan's hospitality sector is skipping its winter tourism season, while the community has restricted access to essential services and community members only.

“It’s not that we don’t want anyone coming in. We welcome the world to come into the community of Fort Chipewyan,” said Adam. “But if we welcome the world to come into the community of Fort Chipewyan now, we will have a big outbreak in the community.”

Sarah Williscraft, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Fort McMurray Today