ANALYSIS: To boost the region’s economy, meet the challenges of climate change, and provide access to First Nations communities, experts say we need to invest in road infrastructure.
In January 2016, a bridge over the Nipigon River failed. Located roughly 100 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, it forms part of the Trans-Canada Highway — when it was closed after bolts snapped, causing decking to rise 60 centimetres, the highway’s east-west link was severed. “This is the one place in Canada where there is only one road, one bridge across the country,” said Nipigon mayor Richard Harvey.
The only alternative route was through the United States. Truck drivers were stranded in towns such as Greenstone, which issued a state of emergency until temporary repairs could be completed. (The cable-stayed bridge — Ontario’s first — is now complete and has separate spans for eastbound and westbound traffic.)
Across Canada, governments invest in road infrastructure to boost trade and tourism and to improve safety and travel times. In southern Ontario, major highway projects underway include the completion of Highway 407 through Durham Region, a new alignment of Highway 7 between Guelph and Kitchener, and the widening of Highway 400 between Vaughan and Barrie. But in northern Ontario, where the road network is sparse, highways are an essential lifeline.
The region has a population of just under 800,000 people spread over 800,000 square kilometres. Almost two-thirds of the northern population lives in just five cities: North Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, and Timmins. Most other towns and villages are served by a basic road network, but in Ontario’s far north, dozens of First Nations communities can be accessed only by air or by winter road one or two months a year.
First Nations communities in northern Ontario, including Kashechewan, Fort Albany, and Pikangikum, are dependent on winter roads to bring in supplies too large or expensive to bring in by air, such as fuel, equipment, building supplies, and food. But climate change is threatening the viability of these ice roads by shortening their useful season; in time, it could make them completely unusable.
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