Climate change impacts vital winter roads for First Nations, leaders say

OTTAWA -- Wonky weather conditions are prompting aboriginal leaders to raise concerns about the impact of climate change on winter roads, which serve as lifelines for food, fuel and other necessities in several northern communities.

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Isadore Day, the Ontario regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, said the reliability of the northern winter road network is in jeopardy in his province.

"The winter roads have essentially become a way of life for the communities and now they can't rely on those winter roads," Day said, noting the network is used to offset the cost to bring essential goods to fly-in reserves by air.

The problem exemplifies why there was outcry from First Nations during the recent COP21 climate change summit in Paris, Day said.

"This is the type of issue where the rubber hits the road," he said.

"There will be no road if we don't have an opportunity to speak for ourselves on the issue of climate change and this certainly is a direct impact."

If people want access into the north, the only viable way now is to have a proper road network, Day added.

NDP indigenous affairs critic Charlie Angus, who represents a northern Ontario riding that includes a number of First Nations communities, said money needs to be invested in sustainable infrastructure.

There has been a long-standing push for permanent roads but climate change has made the issue much more pressing, he noted.

"My message to the government is 'you're going to have to put your money where your mouth is when you make these promises,"' Angus said.

"This is the front line and this is where the action needs to be taking place now."

There is "every evidence" Canada's Aboriginal Peoples are indeed on the front lines of climate change, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"I think it is very worrying and I think that as we look not only to Ontario but to Manitoba, the proposals for the eastern road there, it is something that we are looking at and knowing that we've got to build the kind of resilient infrastructure that will deal with the changing climate."

The federal Liberal government is open to examining the impacts of the issue to allow for a long-term strategy to be developed, Bennett added.

"This will require a real collaborative effort," she said, highlighting that permanent infrastructure would help to create resource revenue in the future.

"We need to have everybody included in really assessing the need and then developing feasibility projects and proposals."

Day said First Nations leaders from Ontario plan to press the minister to bring this "essential issue" to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's cabinet table.

Solutions will also have to include all levels of government, he said.

"For what it is worth, you're going to have every government at the table to ensure these road systems are done properly and that they're done in a timely fashion," Day said.


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