Conference addresses various modes of transportation to service Canada’s north

WINNIPEG, Man. – Accessing Canada’s northern communities is changing along with the region’s climate. With trucks traveling on ice roads and other cargo coming in by aircraft, additional ways to open northern communities to the south has never been more urgent.

This was the message sent during the Northern Transportation Conference at the University of Manitoba March 2, where a group of professors, engineers, pilots, and those in the trucking industry explored how the landscape of northern transportation is changing, and what can be done to expand access in the future.


One of the more talked about modes of transportation that has been studied to open up the north is airships.

Dr. Barry Prentice is the professor of supply chain management at the university, and has been a strong advocate for the use of airships for several years.

Prentice believes airships would be a suitable solution for transporting freight to locations in the north that cannot be accessed by roads.

“They are more expensive than trucks, as trucks are relatively cheap and can carry large loads,” said Prentice. “It’s for where you don’t have roads.”

Prentice said much of the stigma toward airships originates from the public’s perception that was created from the Hindenburg disaster, which saw the zeppelin go up in flames killing 36 of the 97 people on board.

Prentice also cites the technology divide that occurred in 1949 with the first successful jet airliner, prompting their widespread use for passenger air travel.

Dr. Barry Prentice.

But since the 1937 Hindenburg tragedy, Prentice said there has been improvement when it comes to how airships operate.

Using hydrogen as a fuel source, Prentice said airships can now carry low-pressure fuel tanks with no impact on cargo space.

“You can run a truck on hydrogen, but the problem is, where do you have the fuel tank?” questioned Prentice.

He also said if the zeppelin is powered by fuel cells, it will create valuable ballast water through the propulsion system.

Another issue around the use of airships is landing and mooring space.

Airships, as Prentice said, are safe while in flight, but can be susceptible to weather elements while on the ground, making prolonged unloading of cargo potentially hazardous.

But Prentice posed a solution to this problem with the idea of using what he called a turntable air dock. Trucks would be able to pull up to the airship, both sitting on the turntable. If wind were to shift the airship in any way, it, along with the trucks, would turn on the table and avoid any danger.

Some of the benefits Prentice sees in the use of airships in Canada’s north include providing a year-round mode of transportation, enhanced exports and international recognition, the creation of new economic opportunities, mineral exploration, and adding quality of life to those living in remote communities by bringing down the cost of housing, healthcare, and food.

Comparing the price of some common food items in Winnipeg and St. Theresa Point First Nation in Manitoba’s north, Prentice showed the vast difference in cost.

Four liters of milk in St. Theresa Point goes for $16.57; a pound of bananas are $2.26; a loaf of bread is $6.19; a 910 gram can of coffee is $20; and a dozen large eggs are $5.85.

Judy Klassen, MLA for Kewatinook, which includes St. Theresa Point, said she sees firsthand what Indigenous Peoples have to endure being so segregated in the north, including poor health and early death.

Klassen and Prentice said it is much easier for northern residents to rely on diets packed with sugar and fat because of price and access than it is to afford healthy choices.

“We need to change the perception that Indigenous Peoples in the north all want to just move down south,” said Klassen, adding that more needs to be done to provide for those in the north.

Prentice said the cost of goods in the north is not based on freight rates, but rather the method in which these goods are shipped to northern communities.

He said unlike trucks, which require roads to access the north, airships fly over a lot of problems and cause very little ground disturbance.

Once you factor in the cost of building a road and the price tag to haul freight on a truck, in some instances, airships would make economic sense and have the potential to significantly lower the cost of goods in the north.

According to The North West Company, a grocery and retail chain that operates in Canada’s remote northern communities, about three quarters of all food and merchandise shipped north is done so by air, compared to one quarter by truck.

Several companies have designed and built airships, including Canadian manufacturer Basi.

“The airship is a big idea…there is no such thing as a small airship. But just because they are big doesn’t mean we can’t do it,” said Prentice. “This is a Canadian solution to a chronic Canadian problem…this is a way to open up the north.”

Prentice said approximately $500 million is needed to get airships off the ground and running in Canada, around $50 million of which would be required for a hanger.

With hundreds of millions of dollars already being spent on sustaining those in the north with the construction of ice roads, air travel, and subsidizing food, Prentice said there is no reason not to try using airships.

He did admit that the idea is a difficult one for many to wrap their heads around, and getting government help is also daunting.

“We would export around the world,” he said. “Airships will work in our climate, and I think they’ll work anywhere, so why not produce them here?”

Unlike tractor-trailers, airships have a small carbon footprint, and with the impact of climate change becoming apparent in the north, Prentice said their use would be beneficial.

Dr. Danny Blair is a professor in the University of Manitoba’s department of geography, and he said most people in Canada do not understand what is coming from the impact of climate change.

“A lot of people in Manitoba do not get or understand how important climate change is,” he said. “We need to get on with trying to prevent this as much as we can.”

Blair said global temperatures have increased 1.1 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial age, and carbon dioxide concentration is the cause.

Blair, and many scientists, expects this trend to continue, with a worst case scenario seeing the next generation being four degrees warmer, and best case being two degrees warmer.

“There is change coming no matter what,” said Blair. “Despite all the things we’re doing, all the good intentions, the curve is going up.”

Under the worst case scenario, Blair said Churchill, Man., will have the same winter climate as Kenora, Ont., and Winnipeg will see summers like Northern Texas.

“Everything is going to get a lot warmer, especially the winters, but also the summers will be a lot warmer,” said Blair. “This changes everything. The higher we go up that curve, it changes everything, including transportation.”

Ice roads

Ice roads have long been a channel for trucks to haul freight into northern communities.

Tim Smyrski, winter road manager for Manitoba Infrastructure, said with new technology and a changing climate, constructing an ice road is much different than it was decades ago.

“Today the needs (of winter roads) have changed significantly, and we are adapting to those needs,” he said.

With Manitoba Infrastructure constructing around 2,300 km of ice roads every year, climate change is expected to continue having an impact.

Ice roads are built westerly to the Pacific Ocean, easterly to the Atlantic, south to the Gulf of Mexico, and north to the Beaufort Sea.

There are two types of winter ice roads – over land and over water.

“Over land, we take the path of least resistance,” said Smyrski. “For the most part, we still do that with the changing climate.”

Making an ice road over a lake can involve flooding or simply clearing snow off the ice surface.

Smyrski said snow management is vital for proper ice road construction, even more so with changing climate conditions.

Prior to opening an ice road, Manitoba Infrastructure meets with transportation companies to review rules and safety issues, where they are at with construction, and where they will be in the future.

“We interact with the trucking industry quite a bit over the course of the winter,” said Smyrski, adding that more carriers are coming into the province looking to use ice roads to access northern communities.

He said a shortened winter road season can have a negative impact on trucking capacities because many of the remote communities rely on the same carriers for freight delivery.

Warmer climates can also restrict trucks from using land ice roads, as they sink and break up the surface, making them impassable.

Smyrski said one initiative to adapt to climate change is to re-route ice roads off water, with about a 400km reduction thus far.

Looking at the community of Brochet, Man., which is accessed by ice roads, climate change could have a significant impact.

Blair said the next generation could see winter temperatures in Brochet rise from the current -19 degrees Celsius to -12. Very cold days, classified as being -30 degree Celsius or lower, could drop to 20 every year from the 50 they get now. During the summer, the community could also see 5.6 days over 30 degrees. At present, there are no days over 30.

So far, Smyrski said they have been able to adjust.

“We really haven’t seen a decrease in the time our winter roads are in operation because of advancements we have been using,” he said, adding that this season has been a banner year, with about 1,000 extra loads being shipped on ice roads so far.

David Horbas runs First Nations Trucking/Sasco Ltd., a carrier that relies on ice roads for 90% of its business.

“We are an essential service to the north,” said Horbas, adding his company has delivered over 200 loads to northern communities so far this season.

Based out of Gillam, Man., Horbas echoed Smyrski that more roads are being built over land due to climate change, and that “drivers must be proactive and show respect for the road.”

Mat roads

One way to build an environmentally-friendly road over land that poses minimal disturbance is with the use of mats.

Colten Doll is a field engineer with D. Blizzard Integrated Services who builds mat roads primarily for the oil and gas industry in Alberta.

The process involves using various types of wood mats on top of peat moss, which essentially makes the road a year-round access route.

The wood sustains the freeze in the soil underneath and distributes load weight to create stabilization making mat roads a viable option in the north with growing instability of permafrost.

Mat roads can sustain loads exceeding over 100 tons per vehicle.

Colton Doll.

There are three types of mat roads: on-grade (on soil conditions that are level to drive across with no large obstacles); on-grade stringer-deck (terrain with stumps, boulders, rolling or uneven ground with some mud and water; and elevated stringer-deck (used in wetlands, peat bogs, protected areas, deep mud and water, and permafrost. There is also a floating mat road system used in water with no vegetation 10-12 feet in depth that can hold payloads up to 250,000 lb.

Mats that are not damaged can be reused for other road systems.


Another mode of transportation that could work in some cases in the north is drones – or as they are officially now called in Canada, remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS).

Alan Tay, who owns Aurora Aerial Inc. along with his partner Fredrick Petrie, said outside of the military, the commercial market is where the highest demand for drones stems.

One of the hurdles the RPAS industry must overcome for the unmanned devices to be a viable option is to have the “beyond visual or out of sight” restrictions imposed by Transport Canada removed.

Tay said in order for drones to be economical in the north they would need to be large cargo devices, something he can envision in the future.

“This is not science fiction,” said Tay, “this is happening now.”

A university graduate with a degree in English, I have worked in the media and trucking industries as a writer, editor, and now as western bureau chief of Today's Trucking and I have several years of management experience in journalism, as well as hospitality, but am first and foremost a writer, both professionally and in my personal life, having completed two fiction novels.

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