With no all-weather road and an airstrip that can only accommodate small passenger planes, an explosion on a barge earlier this month is causing anxiety in the northern Manitoba community of Poplar River First Nation.
The loss of the barge MV Poplar River means people in the First Nation now have no way of transporting items of any meaningful weight in or out of their community.
“It just creates a real hardship for our community. You know, we can’t bring in appliances and furniture and lumber materials and fuel and bulk foods by air,” Chief Vera Mitchell said.
Poplar River is an isolated community on the east side of Lake Winnipeg, about 350 kilometres north of Winnipeg. The main mode of transportation is by air, Mitchell says, but that is “very limited” because the airstrip can’t accommodate anything bigger than a nine-passenger plane.
A winter road operates from January to March, which Mitchell says is “a little window” to bring in bulk supplies of things like fuel, non-perishable foods and housing materials.
In the summer, the province “has always provided some kind of mode of free transportation on the water,” she said.
“They would have a barge, a boat service that would … pass through, to transport freight.”
Since the explosion on the barge earlier this month, however, Mitchell says no one from the government has reached out to them, and the community has yet to identify an alternative.
“We’re really in dire straits and we’re looking for some kind of government intervention to get … alternative modes of getting our products into our communities and our fish out,” Mitchell said.
Carol Launderville with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans confirmed the May 6 explosion on the barge. It was dry-docked at the department’s small craft harbour facility at Hnausa, south of Poplar River and on the west side of Lake Winnipeg, she said.
The barge is owned and operated by the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation — the federal Crown corporation that markets and trades freshwater fish in interprovincial and export markets.
Stan Lazar, the corporation’s president and chief executive officer, declined to comment on the explosion, noting that “the whole matter is still under investigation.”
A May 7 post on the DFO’s Facebook page said there were “no major injuries” as a result of the explosion and fire.
The cause of the explosion is being investigated, the department says. It also says there was “a related fuel leak on the ground with minimal fuel reaching the water, and environmental response measures were immediately deployed.”
A post on the Facebook page of the Riverton-Bifrost Fire Department, which fought the fire along with the Arborg Fire Department, appeared to show extensive damage to the barge.
Chief Mitchell said she expects it to be out of commission for at least a couple of years.
A major concern for the Poplar River community is the potential impact of the loss of the barge on those employed in commercial fishing.
Mitchell says approximately 1,200 people live on the reserve, and at least 10 per cent of them fish commercially. Fishing season is slated to start in June, but Mitchell says she’s not sure it will go ahead as planned.
“It’s our livelihood,” she said. “And, of course, we’re we’re scrambling, trying to find alternatives to transporting our fish and getting our freight. It’s a crisis.”
In the past, the community relied on the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation, which is a licensed fish buyer in Manitoba, to both transport and purchase its catch.
Lazar told the CBC that the corporation is “developing plans as a result of the explosion,” but that owing to its recency, he wasn’t able to go into specifics.
A spokesperson for the province of Manitoba said it will work with the marketing corporation and the federal government “to help address … [Poplar River First Nation’s] concerns.”
Long-term solution needed
The current situation underscores the need for long-term solutions to Poplar River’s transportation challenges, Mitchell said.
The community needs its airstrip relocated, an all-weather road and a freighting barge system on Lake Winnipeg — “all three of them,” Mitchell said.
The relocation of the airstrip has been a topic of discussion for over 20 years, the chief said. The size of the current airstrip means an air ambulance can’t land there in the event of an emergency.
The airstrip’s deficiency was noted as far back as 1998, in a report from a provincial airports safety working group.
A provincial spokesperson told CBC a Poplar River airport project, involving the relocation of the airstrip, is “tentatively planned” to start in the 2025-26 fiscal year.
The project is expected to take approximately five years to complete, according to the spokesperson.
For now, “the existing Poplar River airport and runway is operational and in regular use,” the spokesperson said.
Mitchell said she was not aware of the projected start date, but that “it’s 20 years late already, so another three years is not going to make too much difference.”
“But it’s disappointing because we’re always having to wait, and we’re not a priority.”