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Canada’s ice roads are melting

Climate change could lead to higher suicide rates on northern reserves, an Ontario chief warns

Canada’s ice roads are melting

Canada’s ice roads, which provide lifelines for many remote Indigenous communities, are melting. And those close to the problem say it could increase suicide rates for those communities.

Like many other Northern Ontario First Nations, Bearskin Lake is surrounded by lakes and rivers, so they bring in supplies by plane in the summer and by ice road during the colder months.

And for the second winter in a row, the ice road hasn’t frozen properly. People in the community see it as a sign of things to come, but the consequences are already playing out.

Ten kilograms of baking flour usually costs $30 at the local grocery store, but now it’s fetching $50, because it has to be brought in by air and that’s more expensive. Bearskin Lake residents are also dealing with mouldy and overcrowded homes. The plan this winter was to bring in lumber over the ice road for new housing, but that’s on hold because the ice is too thin.

“We’re concerned that northern communities in the future need to have all season roads, because the weather is changing, the climate is changing,” said deputy chief Leonard Brown, who noted that the rocks and ground are already visible on the winter road that is usually covered in snow at this time of year. 

“We’re concerned that northern communities in the future need to have all season roads.”

“We almost ran out of diesel fuel, but we managed to fly it in,” said resident George Kam. “To fly that stuff in is very expensive.”

“With this climate change, I don’t think it’s going to stop, it’ll just keep changing,” he added.

In the past, winter roads were functional 70 to 80 days of the year, according to Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day. Now it’s only about 28 days, he said.

“We’ve seen plus double digits in the north in February,” said Day, who is joining fellow chiefs in raising the alarm about how climate change is affecting the north.

“It’s touching on the cost of living in the north, and the cost of fuel,” he told VICE News.

He also expects climate change to increase suicide rates on Northern Ontario reserves that already experience higher rates of depression and suicide. “The fear and uncertainty of climate change is certainly going to have an impact on rising suicide rates,” he said.

“I’m calling on the government to address that right away.”

Without reliable ice roads, it’s harder for people to visit family and friends in other communities, he explains, which deepens the feelings of isolation and hopelessness.

“I’m calling on the government to address that right away,” he said of both the high suicide rates and need for all-weather roads. “They have to get serious about it.”

“To see our people marooned in remote communities and not have access to the type of travel that the rest of Canadians have access to, it’s ludicrous. We need to resolve this by addressing the all-season road systems [needed] in the north immediately.”

Cover: Cameron French/Reuters

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