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Community ᐄᐦᑖᐧᐃᓐ

Ontario explores all-season routes for western James Bay communities

BY Ben Powless Jan 15, 2022

First Nations communities on western James Bay are one step closer to getting an all-season road, after the Ontario government promised the chiefs of the Mushkegowuk Council it would explore the idea of linking four remote communities to the rest of the province.

The province made the commitment during a December 3 meeting between Northern Development Minister Greg Rickford, Environment Minister Piccini, and chiefs of Missanabie Cree, Chapleau Cree, Taykwa Tagamou, Moose Cree, Kashechewan, Fort Albany and Attawapiskat.

“The Mushkegowuk Council and its member First Nations have shown tremendous leadership in protecting the western James Bay and Hudson Bay coastal and marine ecosystems,” Piccini said in a statement, “and [they] will be strong stewards and partners as we explore Indigenous-led environmental assessment and road access for northern communities.”

 In a pre-feasibility study, Mushkegowuk Council identified four potential routes to connect Moose Factory/Moosonee, Fort Albany, Kashechewan and Attawapiskat. The roads envisioned would either follow the existing railway to Moosonee, or run along one of three rivers – the Matagami, Kwata or Albany. A coastal road would then reach the remaining communities. 

The proposed routes range between 547 and 676 kilometres, linking them with Highway 11 further south either near Hearst or with existing roads north of Kapuskasing.

Ryan Small, Director of Technical Services for the Mushkegowuk Council, said the chiefs started looking for the best way to transport freight to the region a decade ago, examining both rail and road options. 

The pre-feasibility study was completed in 2015. Discussions started in 2017 as chiefs leaned toward all-season roads for western James Bay, conducting a First Nations-led environmental assessment of that proposal. 

Small warns that much work awaits before shovels hit the ground. “They still need to do geotechnical work, geotechnical design. Right now, there’s high level costing and lots of unknowns,” he said.

“We still have to decide if communities want it,” Small added. “It’s a huge project, it’s going to be expensive, and hopefully we get to where the leadership is satisfied with the work we bring forward and a final decision can take place.”

With opposition from communities to mining-related development, Small stressed that there is no mining proponent behind this proposal. 

Small said a report the Council commissioned identified both benefits and drawbacks to building an all-season road but highlighted improved access to the communities, a lower cost of living, and accessibility to health care, education and employment opportunities. 

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.