Weathering Winter Roads – What is the Best Route?

April 7, 2015 - Recently, the use of winter roads and access trails have become increasingly unreliable as temperatures rise and weather patterns become unpredictable. Many First Nations communities in Northern Ontario are vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change, since they depend on consistent cold weather during winter to sustain their economic, social, and traditional ways of life. Community members here and across all of northern Canada, as well as scientists, describe climate change as gradual in the region until 10 years ago, when weather patterns began to change significantly. According to the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources (CIER), “seasonal precipitation, the number of frost-free days, and the frequency of severe weather-related events have all been in greater flux. Predictions about global warming, even at such high latitudes, forecast dramatic increases up to eight degrees in average temperature through the rest of the century, which will further degrade winter transportation.”[i]

Ontario has a very unique 3,160 kilometer winter road system that is constructed and maintained by First Nations communities in Ontario’s far north with the support of the federal and provincial governments. The present winter road system evolved from the original winter trails that were intended for use by crawler tractors pulling heavy freight sleigh trains. Winter roads are carved from the ice and snow to provide temporary access to isolated regions where building conventional year-round roads is too expensive because there are too many river crossings and large boggy areas to traverse. The current winter road network provides a ten to twelve week link to the provincial highway or rail system for 30 First Nations communities, plus the municipality of Moosonee, serving about 21,000 people. Relative to other parts of Ontario, there is very little infrastructure in the Far North. The road network in the region consists of two all-season roads: the Nungesser Road, leading from Red Lake to the Berens River, and the Pickle Lake road providing access to the Town of Pickle Lake and the Musselwhite Mine, terminating at Windigo Lake.

A great deal of effort and equipment is required to construct these specialized winter roads, including the use of heavy machinery to pack and grade the snow to appropriately safe levels for travel. This is especially true for the many roads that cross over lakes, as ensuring the proper level of ice thickness becomes a primary concern. While a thickness of 20 inches is appropriate for light traffic, 30 inches of heavy ice is required to handle tractor-trailers, which can reach a weight of 80,000 pounds on a full load. The construction of heavy ice allows the communities to bring in big-ticket commodities over the winter road rather than via air. The cost differences are significant. According to a general manager of the Asheweig Winter Road Corporation, which oversees the construction of nearly 350 kilometers of winter roads every year, catering to six communities from Kasabonkia Lake to Wunnumin Lake First Nations: “when it comes to key resources such as gas: while flying it in raises the cost to nearly $2 a litre, bringing it in via the winter roads lowers the price to $1.35 a litre.”[ii] Within the two or three months that the winter roads are open, communities and businesses can transport in six or eight months’ worth of goods, and in some cases, they are able to transport the entire years’ worth of supplies. The following highlights some of the goods moved over the winter roads in the winter of 2011-2012:

  • 1,098,783 kg of materials – this includes 430,913 kg of gravel for summer projects
  • 18 truckloads of housing materials = 177,808 kg
  • 15 housing units
  • 2 community centres
  • 2 bush bungalows (1 office building)
  • 2,237,630 kg of supplies and groceries delivered
  • 3, 735,790 litres of gasoline
  • 1, 414, 600 litres of diesel fuel[iii]

Warm weather has shortened the winter season considerably because of weaker, thinner ice conditions, increased levels of slush, and the continuing melting of the underlying permafrost. The season in Northern Ontario “has already contracted by at least a week on average, and this trend is predicated to shorten winter access by at least two more weeks in the coming decades.”[iv] Without passable roads, already fragile local economies could slow even further. Building and housing projects could suffer delays, when beams for example fail to arrive having a highly negative financial impact on the related communities. These isolated northern communities would become more cut off, as traveling short distances to visit families, attend social events, such as marriages and funerals, and participate in recreational activities could become more difficult or even potentially dangerous.

According to the provincial government, during the 2011 to 2012 fiscal year Ontario spent “$4.725 million to assist in building the winter roads network, in which the province estimated represented only 50% of the cost to construct and maintain the road system.”[v] Northern Affairs Canada is estimated at committing up to 40 percent of the other half, leaving these remote communities footing the remainder of the tab, which even at 10 percent of the total bill, can be detrimental to a small economy. While relatively costly, this remaining investment is often offset through the expected cost reductions of major construction components and fuel. However, when winter road usage is reduced, so too are the opportunities to bring in those key items. Other problems with the winter roads have arisen when communities lack the large number of capital projects. While individual residents may end up making extensive use of the road to collect their own supplies, the high price of constructing the road may not be offset by any significant potential savings that stem from having to transport large amounts of construction materials. Some recommendations and strategies currently in use to combat the problems of winter roads include:

  • Installing permanent bridges across key rivers/open bodies of water in warm seasons that can be used during the winter.
  • Moving winter roads off-ice where possible – re-aligning winter roads away from lakes/waterways to higher esker ridges – onto land.
  • Commissioning construction crews to strengthen thin ice by repeated flooding and freezing.
  • Increasing the consumption of local foods.
  • Enhancing safety measures.
  • Considering alternative transportation means, such as ferries and rail, or airships that can land on any flat surface.
  • Beginning the discussion of designing a national strategy addressing the transportation issues faced by remote northern communities in light of upcoming resource industry transportation requirements – focusing on regional infrastructure and resource development.

Even though several strategies are being implemented to tackle the serious issues that winter roads present, First Nations members are expressing deep concerns surrounding the weather changes and the disruption of winter roads and access trails, which has resulted in a push for all-season roads access. Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Harvey Yesno said that “it has been several years since all remote communities have been able to rely on winter roads for transportation, and were able to receive most of their fuel, building supplies and other materials over the winter roads because the weather has been too mild…and the ultimate goal is all-weather roads, eventually over time.”[vi] All weather roads or all season roads are comprised of gravel, and are constructed by the standards of the forestry industry to include go around bridges that offer access to communities in a safe way. In a cost comparison model-transportation study commissioned by the Moose Cree Nation in 2013, it was estimated that “all weather road construction costs are varied to test the effect of this cost factor on the location of the break-even point. Analyses for all scenarios are conducted at road construction costs of $1.6M/KM and $3.0M/KM. Annual costs associated with road construction are calculated as the total cost of the road divided by the road’s expected lifespan. For example, the annual cost associated with a road 100KM long at a cost of $1.6M/KM and a lifespan of 10 years would be $16M/Year.”[vii]

Budgetary constraints, however, could render implementation problematic, and muskeg areas are so vast in some regions that re-routing or building permanent roads does not seem practical in the foreseeable future. In those areas where all-weather roads could be built, First Nations communities look forward to economic and health benefits. At the same time, members worry about demographic shifts; the potential influx of alcohol, drugs and other negative influences; and the possibility of environmental damage.

A specific example of concern is expressed by Margaret Kenequanash, Executive Director of Shibogama First Nations Council who believes “that a social impact study would have to be conducted before any all-season roads are constructed into the Shibogama communities; and she further states that “once an all season road (was built), anybody could access that road so that would definitely create some concerns among our people so there needs to be some assessment done on the whole situation.” In light of these concerns, it would appear that some First Nations communities are at a crossroads in terms of deciding whether all season road access is beneficial in their area. While enhanced cost-sharing plans among stakeholders might solve significant transportation and construction problems, the truth is, short and long term plans for winter road networks are unclear at this point. Climate changes are shifting at an increasing rate, there are no obvious solutions, and the scientific literature provides only rudimentary guidance at present. The best route is still to be determined. What is apparent, is that urgent discussions among the First Nations, the federal and provincial governments are needed to establish priorities, and develop detailed plans in order to grapple with the significant impacts of climate change on northern First Nations communities, regarding their vital network of winter roads and access trails.

[i] Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources. Climate Change Impacts on Ice, Winter Roads, Access Trails, and Manitoba First Nations.  September 15, 2010. Retrieved from:

[ii] Stewart, Nick. Winter roads a lifeline for many Far North communities. Northern Ontario Business. March 13, 2008.

[iii] Stewart, Nick. Winter roads a lifeline for many Far North communities. Northern Ontario Business. March 13, 2008.

[iv] Garrick, Rick. INAC to provide $3.8 million in fuel deliver subsidies. Wawatay News. Thursday, April 15, 2010. Retrieved from

[v] Aboriginal Economic Development, Aboriginal Affairs Working Group. Aboriginal success stories – Ontario winter roads program. 2011. Retrieved from:

[vi] CBC News. First Nations pushing for all-weather roads. March, 28, 2013. Retrieved from

[vii] Adaman, Matt. Doell, Bryce, Grewal Nirbir, Prentice, Barry. Cargo airships versus all-weather roads – a cost comparison. University of Manitoba. 2013. 5.

Authored by Cheryl Reid

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