How to build Ontario: The north needs roads 

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.
By Sean Marshall - Published on Sep 25, 2019
highway signs in Ontario
The Nipigon Bridge, located 100 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, forms part of the Trans-Canada Highway. (Sean Marshall)

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Every week until the 2019 Canadian election, TVO.org will look at the federal issues that matter to Ontarians. This week, we tackle infrastructure in a three-part series. Watch for Part 2 on Thursday.

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. In 2016, Isadore Day, then Ontario regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, said that winter roads “have essentially become a way of life for [northern] communities” and called on all levels of government to be part of a solution.

Though highways fall under provincial jurisdiction, the federal government is often involved in funding highway improvements, particularly those of national importance. Recent federal funding announcements have included $169 million for widening Highway 69 south of the French River and $37 million for widening the Trans-Canada Highway east of Thunder Bay.

But federal support for provincial projects is dependent on the four-year electoral cycles for each level of government and on federal-provincial relations. While there has been some talk, there’s been little action on building all-season roads to Ontario’s far north.

According to Charles Cirtwill, founding president and CEO of the Northern Policy Institute, there are four key priorities for the north: completing the twinning of Highway 69 between Parry Sound and Sudbury, twinning Highway 17 between Kenora and the Manitoba border, improving the network of unpaved and winter roads connecting northern First Nations communities with all-season roads, and piloting a Scandinavian-style 2+1 highway configuration for Highway 11.

Improvements to highways 11 and 17, he says, “would strengthen the connections between the north and population centres such as Toronto and Winnipeg and improve safety along major trade routes.” New all-season roads to First Nations communities would provide reliable access to employment, educational, and health resources while reducing grocery and fuel costs for residents. Cirtwill hopes that continued interest in the Ring of Fire, a massive chromite deposit 400 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, will spur the development of all-season roads and rail links to several nearby First Nations. But he is “frustrated” with the focus on economic development. “Social benefit for the communities should be the primary driver of why we are considering investing in this infrastructure,” he told TVO.org later via email. “Not the potential profit for the mining companies.”

In an email to TVO.org, a spokesperson for the Liberals pointed to their record of funding strategic highway improvements in northern Ontario, such as the widenings of highways 69 and 17 and a $40 million investment in 48 “smaller but no less critical projects,” including bridge replacements and road reconstructions in Fort Frances and Sniders Bay, near Gravenhurst. All are part of the ongoing Investing in Canada plan, they wrote, which promises “historic $180 Billion infrastructure program to restore, rebuild and expand our nation’s infrastructure.” So far, the federal government has committed $652 million to road construction across Canada.

Joe Pickerill, chief of staff to the minister of infrastructure and communities, told TVO.org via email that “there was a delay or more than a year before infrastructure projects were resurrected or submitted to the federal government for joint funding” after the election of the Progressive Conservative government in spring 2018. This meant missing the 2018 and 2019 construction seasons, which are shorter in the north.

(TVO.org contacted the Conservative party and the NDP for comment on northern Ontario road infrastructure but neither was able to respond by publication time. However, Charlie Angus, MP for Timmins–James Bay and the NDP’s critic for Indigenous affairs has advocated for federal funding for all-season roads in Ontario’s far north.)

“The future of northern Ontario is dependent on solving the social and economic issues of the First Nations who live here,” Cirtwill told TVO.org via email. “In the northeast, those communities are physically connected to each other and to the outside world. Health, education, employment and social issues have all seen improvement as a result. If we want the same progress in the northwest, then we need to build the same connections. It really is that simple.”

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, Charles Cirtwill's surname was misspelled. TVO.org regrets the error.

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