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WSJ Report: Evidence of Global Warming in Canada


TRIBE Member
On front page of today's the WSJ

Road to St. Theresa
Is Paved With Ice --
It, Alas, Is Melting

Arteries Give Winter Access
To Manitoba Indians;
Warm Trend Is a Problem
April 4, 2006; Page A1

ST. THERESA POINT, Manitoba -- Every winter for more than 30 years, Marvin Flett has helped build a road across the ice to link his remote aboriginal community to the outside world.

Now he has a problem. Over the past decade, milder temperatures and a later fall freeze-up have cut into the annual road-building season in northern Manitoba. That has made construction more challenging for crew foreman Mr. Flett and the dozens of other aboriginals who build a 1,600-mile network of icy roads every winter. This past winter, warm weather delayed the fall freeze and prevented Mr. Flett's crew from starting on time near St. Theresa, which is one of the 633 aboriginal reserve communities across Canada that are home to half the country's 750,000 First Nations, or Indian, people.

The road to St. Theresa didn't open to heavy truck traffic until the end of February, six weeks later than the traditional opening date. Even after the freeze, "the ice isn't as hard as it used to be," says Mr. Flett, who tracks annual construction and weather conditions in journals that he keeps in his bedroom. The ice, he says, "has air pockets in it all the time. It used to be just solid."

With no paved, year-round roads reaching their communities, natives on 27 northern Manitoba reserves rely on winter roads every year to truck in a year's canned goods and other staples, fuel and building supplies. The provincial and federal governments chip in $5 million to build the roads. Builders use bulldozers, some with special blades attached, and graders to clear paths in the packed snow that covers frozen lakes and swamps. For the rest of the year, the only way in or out from down south is by air.

To avoid the worst perils of warmer temperatures, native crews have rerouted roads to avoid lakes and creeks as much as possible. Some teams have devised new methods of building over slushy swamps, and insist that it's safe to drive across a lake even when the ice cover is melting into slush. But, says Mr. Flett, "there's no future for winter roads if it's going to keep warming."

Canada's average temperatures have climbed by 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 60 years, says the government's senior climatologist, David Phillips. The northern parts of the country have seen the most pronounced increases, and temperatures there as elsewhere have climbed most during the winter months, Mr. Phillips says. The road builders "are not imagining it," he says. "They're the witnesses to this dramatic change."

In barren St. Theresa, a community of 3,000 Ojibway-Cree people on an Island Lake peninsula, the delay in opening the roads this year added to residents' money woes. With more than half of households dependent on welfare checks, most families try to avoid the high prices at the reserve's only store by using the winter road season to stock up in Winnipeg, 12 hours south.

Brenda Wood, a mother of five who shopped at the reserve store on a sunny morning recently as officials prepared to close the winter roads for the season, says she was only able to make one winter trip south. Since she's spending more on groceries at the local store than usual, "I have to stretch my money," she says. In March, she says, she had no money left to pay her phone bill.

People who don't have their own cars say it was tougher than ever to find a ride south because the season was so short. Elder Tekakwitha Mason says she is making more soup to stretch her grocery dollars. "We can't have meat and potatoes and vegetables," she says. At the reserve store, carrots cost about $3.40 for a two-pound bag; ground beef costs upward of $14.00 a pound.

Social problems such as substance abuse and teen pregnancy are widespread on the reserve. Only about 25% of homes have indoor plumbing. Plywood squares replace windows on many wood-frame houses and abandoned, rusting vehicles peek through the snow along the dirt roads. The reserve contrasts starkly with the surrounding landscape of pristine lakes and birch and pine forests punctuated by lowland muskegs, a Cree name for the area's boggy, mossy swamp.

Until the 1940s and '50s, transport here was largely by canoe. The first winter roads were built by freight-hauling companies serving stores owned by Hudson's Bay Co., which started trading with the fur-trapping Manitoba natives in the late 17th century. While most St. Theresa families still spend time "on the land" hunting and fishing, they now rely almost entirely on store-bought food.

Some St. Theresa residents say that although their day-to-day lives no longer resemble the traditional native ways of their ancestors, they feel that this isolated patch of the province is the only place they can call home. "When you're in Winnipeg, you don't feel like you're belonging," says Laura Wood, a band constable, or police officer.

Trucks on a winter road across the ice of Highway Bay dealt with slushy conditions this winter.

When the weather was colder in the 1970s and '80s, "we used to pack the snow with the snowmobiles to keep the frost in" before clearing a path, says Moses Wood, 60 years old, who serves as Marvin Flett's second-in-command on the crew. Riding on the snow helped force the frost to penetrate the muskeg and ground more deeply, Mr. Wood and Mr. Flett say. On the ice-covered lakes, the process was similar.

Locals started noticing changes in ice conditions and seasons a few years ago. Jerry Hnatiw, a non-native who has lived in the area for 40 years, started tracking the "freeze-up" -- the date Island Lake freezes enough to walk on -- in 1980, and his chart, which he copies and posts, shows more late November dates in recent years. Hunters and trappers say that birds' and animals' behaviors adapted, with moose mating later in the fall and fur pelts failing to get as thick and dark in winter.

As the winters got warmer, road crews learned they had to clear snow off frozen ground and ice to prevent it from acting as an insulator. Then, in 2002, a road builder was killed when his machine fell through the ice east of St. Theresa. The ice that day was thick enough, but "was not [the] solid, blue ice we are accustomed to," says Jonathan Flett, an official with the regional tribal authority. A brother of Marvin Flett, Jonathan Flett says the accident "was when we noticed we were really dealing with something we weren't prepared for."

The provincial government now requires thicker ice on the roads. To thicken ice, some crews rent equipment from other tribes to flood the frozen lakes. Since the accident, crews have also been moving roads off lakes and onto swamp and land.

But the builders still face problems. This winter, snow started to fall before the muskeg froze completely, and the blanket of snow kept the muskeg from freezing solid, Marvin Flett says. The St. Theresa bulldozer kept breaking through the ice into the muskeg. "Every day we'd go through five times," he says.

Marvin and Jonathan Flett both say that they hope to eventually win government funding to build an all-weather road to their community. Such a project would cost at least $1.1 billion, according to a preliminary feasibility study, says a Manitoba transportation department official.

As the last trucks rolled through St. Theresa two weeks ago, drivers faced a watery slog across a part of Island Lake known locally as Highway Bay. Tanker driver Mark Sorin, heading out across the muskeg toward slushy Highway Bay, says his fellow drivers have been snapping photographs of the worst patches of road as they cross them. "You just shut the window and you don't listen to the cracking," he says.