Among intrepid lovers of the open road, the 620-kilometre James Bay Highway is the stuff of legends. With no stop signs, enforced speed laws or roadside amenities, the two-lane stretch between Matagami and Radisson is the most remote road system in North America.
It’s also a key piece of infrastructure for the socioeconomic vitality of northern Quebec and Eeyou Istchee, in particular. A new investment of $69.2 million announced October 21 by Quebec’s Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, Jonatan Julien, is intended to improve the road’s safety while protecting local ecosystems.
“The work to be carried out will provide a safe, reliable and good quality road link, and will set an example by complying with new environmental and design standards,” stated Julien. “The James Bay Road is a strategic asset in that it facilitates access to local and Aboriginal communities and to forestry, mining and energy resources. In addition, in the current context, the work will certainly be a stimulus for the regional economy.”
This new investment expands upon $264.7 million initially allocated for repairs and upgrades to more than half of the road, which began in 2017 and is scheduled to be completed next year. The additional budget will enable the construction of watercourse crossings, which were not covered in the original project management plan.
Approximately 50 culverts at 18 different sites will be replaced with structures such as bridges or arches between June 2021 and November 2026, designed according to the latest knowledge and environmental standards. New regulations respecting the sustainable development of forests were implemented two years ago.
“The new structures will have the capacity to deal with increased volumes of water and water flows, and will not only make the road safer for the people who live and work in the area, but will also ensure the integrity and sustainability of the infrastructures and protect wildlife and aquatic ecosystems,” said Pierre Dufour, Minister of Forests, Wildlife and Parks and Minister responsible for the Abitibi-Témiscamingue and Nord-du-Québec regions.
Built in the early 1970s primarily to transport heavy equipment for hydroelectric projects upwards of 300 tons, it is a magnet for potholes caused by severe weather swings when water seeps through the pavement and freezes in the winter. Safety along the road has long been a concern, with a popular Facebook group devoted to documenting the many potholes and other current conditions.
In May 2018, two different Cree families suffered injury and serious car damage within the space of a few days after hitting potholes with no warning signs. When Sandra Mianscum Icebound’s vehicle blew both right-side tires in the middle of the night, she had to wait until morning with her family for a tow truck to arrive in this unpopulated area.
“There was no marker on the road,” Mianscum Icebound told CBC News. “It almost threw me on the other side of the road. Good thing there was no car coming. They should fix the potholes for the safety of our children and grandchildren who are traveling there often.”
With only one gas station, located at kilometre 381, drivers on the highway are particularly vulnerable to vehicle breakdowns. Last February, it was announced that the highway’s only rest stop, also located at this juncture, would be connected to Hydro-Québec’s electricity network.
Serving a quickly growing population of 32,000, the road is of increasing strategic importance to the region. All parties involved in the recent investment expressed excitement at the economic opportunities associated with both the highway’s construction work and the expanded traffic that the completed infrastructure will encourage.
“It’s a long drive and it needs to be safe,” asserted Chantal Hamelin, director general of the Secretariat to the Cree Nation Abitibi-Témiscamingue Economic Alliance. “It was needed 10 years ago, to keep people safe and make it attractive to tourism to go up North. I wish that Cree communities and businesses can get involved in helping and getting contracts and spin-off effects of this development.”
Tourism investment has swiftly been expanding in the region alongside other industries, signified by the creation of Cree-owned Eeyou Istchee Baie-James Travel last year. The first round of highway development work to facilitate further transportation of people and goods is planned to begin next June.
“This continued investment is synonymous with economic development, preservation of the territory and improvement of safety for all users,” said Grand Chief Abel Bosum. “The work completed thus far has already significantly improved driving conditions enhancing safety and we are pleased that additional work opportunities to complete the project will be brought to the territory.”