The Wetum Road: How much is connecting James Bay to the provincial highway worth? – by John Michael McGrath ( – April 05, 2016)

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MOOSONEE, Ont. — The argument for a permanent year-round road to James Bay is pretty simple for the people who live there.

“Bottom line, what we’re trying to do here is lower the cost of living,” says Ryan Small, director of technical services for the Mushkegowuk Council, a coalition of seven First Nations in Ontario’s northeast. “The time we get to use the winter roads is getting shorter and shorter. Building access for our communities is important.”

Building a year-round road from the closest point on the provincial highway system north to James Bay will be daunting. A minimum of 500 kilometres of two-lane gravel road will have to cross rivers and muskeg while clearing a path through stunted pine forests. The ground holds onto water eagerly, making it a sloppy muck in the summer and freezing solid in the winter. Combined with the bridges necessary for numerous water crossings, it’s a costly and challenging endeavour.

With federal and provincial funding, the council is studying how a permanent road from the provincial highway network could be built to James Bay. The hope is the road would connect northern James Bay communities not just with the south, but with one another.

The first winter roads to James Bay were built to serve the De Beers Victor Diamond Mine outside Attawapiskat, but were used only for the early construction of the mine itself, not its ongoing operations. When De Beers stopped maintaining the road, the Moose Cree First Nation began advocating for a replacement — what has now become the Wetum Road to Moosonee.

It connects with the James Bay Road, which runs through the communities of Fort Albany, Kashechewan and Attawapiskat farther north. Warmer winter weather both hindered the Wetum Road’s construction early on and continues to cause concern about its viability. The Wetum Road opened this year on January 25 and closed on March 28 — giving communities on James Bay just 63 days of road access for the year.

The obvious answer is a year-round road, engineered to withstand the special conditions of the James Bay lowlands. But if the proposition were easy, it would exist already. The Mushkegowuk Council is working with consultants to determine which one of four possible routes will balance the needs of different communities with possible negative impacts. Early consultations among the First Nations stakeholders have shown an enthusiasm for a permanent road.

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