Connecting Canada’s north

by Derek Clouthier

WINNIPEG, Man. – Developing reliable road infrastructure into Northern Canada’s First Nations communities continues to present significant challenges.

The Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships (CCPPP) recently commissioned a report, P3s: Bridging the First Nations Infrastructure Gap with the goal of moving the process of providing all-season roads, as well as clean drinking water and safe, quality and affordable housing, to the most remote Native communities in Canada’s ‘great white north.’

In the wake of what the CCPPP said was an infrastructure deficit of as much as $30 billion for First Nations, the report suggests utilizing public-private partnerships (P3s) to address this infrastructure deficit.

“Infrastructure should support our economies and grow our revenues so we can pay for infrastructure operation, maintenance and replacement,” said Manny Jules, chief commissioner of the First Nations Tax Commission. “This report provides important recommendations about how First Nations can utilize a tool that is available to other levels of government to build high quality public infrastructure on-time and on budget.”

Steve Hobbs, director of strategic planning and partnerships for the CCPPP, said one of the challenges in building reliable roads and highways in and out of remote northern communities is that they can often be driven by resource development, with companies paying for the roads in the past, but may no longer be able to foot 100% of the bill, which in turn, means federal and provincial governments need to play a larger role and think more long-term.

“The high capital cost of these assets can appear prohibitive,” said Hobbs. “However, the long-term benefit of giving communities access to employment, health care, fuel, groceries and other economic and social benefits would reduce the long-term costs of having isolated communities.”

Weather and terrain is a more obvious hurdle to overcome when constructing roads in Northern Canada.

“This is where P3s can play a role by taking on risk and delivering on-time and on-budget infrastructure and bring in more private sector expertise,” said Hobbs.

Hobbs said he believes the trucking industry could play a role in the effort to bring reliable roads and highways to northern First Nations communities by advocating the benefits to those affected, one of which being reducing the risk associated with driving on winter roads.

CCPPP communications director Dave Trafford said there are dozens of remote, fly-in communities in Canada, as well as those with only limited winter access, which he said is getting shorter due to climate change and unpredictable winter weather, forcing services to be flown in and increasing the cost.

“The need for all-season roads is increasing and can provide significant benefits to communities through connectivity, lower costs for shipping and access to employment opportunities,” said Trafford.

Trafford said when it comes to funding road infrastructure projects, governments cannot afford cost overruns and time delays, and that P3s constantly deliver on time, on budget and offer innovative solutions to projects across Canada, offering the Sierra Yojo Desan Resource Road upgrade in Northern B.C. as an example.

Trafford echoed Hobbs’ sentiment, saying that with the P3 model, the private sector takes on the risks associated with the design, build, finance, maintenance and, in some cases, operations of the asset.

He also said that given the closeness of many northern First Nations communities to natural resources, there could be an opportunity for the government to share some of the costs with private sector resource companies by implementing a toll or fee for usage of the road network.

Trafford concurred with Hobbs that the long-term benefits of having a reliable connection to northern Canadian communities would far outweigh the upfront costs of the project.

“That is not to say it would not be a considerable undertaking with significant costs,” he said, “but there should be a long-term vision to get these projects moving.”

Like Hobbs, Trafford feels trucking companies should encourage the government to get needed road infrastructure in place, and added that they should also work to prioritize shipments to locations that rely on winter roads and work with communities to hire local employees, who often have limited options, but would bring expertise on the terrain and municipalities in the area.

Trafford said that in the short to medium term, trucking would be the most affordable option when also considering rail, air and sea.

He said rail would not only be expensive, but also more difficult to “traverse the geography of the north,” and that sea is available to only a limited number of communities.

Many First Nations members welcomed the findings in the CCPPP report, including Grand Chief Warren White, who said the people of Treaty 3 are in need of finding new ways to move major infrastructure projects forward in their communities.

“Our communities are in dire need of new infrastructure in housing, education and water and wastewater and we know that we need to have all of the infrastructure development tools available to us,” White said, “like P3 and ASD, if we want to lessen the infrastructure deficit in Treaty 3 communities.”

Mark Romoff, president and CEO of the CCPPP said the Canadian P3 model is a proven method of providing high performance infrastructure to communities throughout Canada.

“CCPPP wants to help identify and eliminate the barriers that are preventing First Nations from taking advantage of modern and innovative approaches to infrastructure procurement,” said Romoff.

“Connecting communities via all-season road access can be a game changer for First Nation communities,” Trafford added. “It would allow them access to more amenities enjoyed by other Canadians, provide better options for emergency management, lower the cost of everything from food to housing supplies through cheaper transportation, and open up employment opportunities.”

The CCPPP was established in 1993 as what it describes as a national, non-partisan, member-based organization with representation from the public and private sector, with the mission of promoting innovative approaches to infrastructure development and service delivery through public-private partnerships.

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