A volunteer-run church group says it faces a “huge financial struggle” after the N.W.T. government rerouted barges this summer due to the Mackenzie River’s low water levels.

Last week, the territory announced that cargo meant for communities north of Norman Wells will now be sent through Tuktoyaktuk instead of Hay River. The switch is a result of water levels on the usual route falling to a record low this year.

In the past, Sahtu leaders have stressed the need for an all-season road to ensure food and essential goods can reach isolated communities, no matter the changing climate and its effect on both the summer barge season and the brief winter ice road.

The Society of St Vincent de Paul, which sends supplies to northern communities, says it is finding ways to complete this year’s deliveries amid “dramatic logistics challenges.”

The group says it has spent 14 years sending goods north to help residents cope with high food prices.

In the N.W.T., eight to 10 sea containers are sent each year to Paulatuk, Fort Good Hope, Ulukhaktok, Inuvik, Tsiigehtchic, Fort McPherson, Aklavik and Sachs Harbour. 

According to project manager Peter Ouellette, the group also extended support to Hay River and Fort Smith during last summer’s wildfires.

“When we started this off, we were so fortunate to have free truck transportation up to Hay River and free barge transportation to reach these communities,” Ouellette reflected.

Roughly 50 to 100 volunteers in the N.W.T., Calgary and Edmonton help out with the shipments. Ouellette said springtime is when volunteers at Catholic parishes invest “hundreds of hours” being “actively involved in bringing in food and other donations into that sea container.”

Though government funding covers barge shipping costs, Ouellette said donations are used to pay trucking costs – which will be higher now that the Hay River terminal is inaccessible. The 20-ft sea containers will cost the group $16,000 each to truck to Tuktoyaktuk.

The containers include food and household goods, tools, drills for restoration and construction, furniture, bedding, springs and mattresses, sewing machines and fabric among other things.

“This change results in an estimated $150,000 in unbudgeted expense to move the nine sea cans to Tuktoyaktuk … The transportation and trucking costs up that far, and then on by barge to the communities, is an extreme expense,” Ouellette said.

“We have no paid employees, we’re all volunteers. It all gets put together with donations from churches and corporations … How do we finance the 2024 program? It’s well on its way. The sea containers are loaded and at the trucking terminals here in Edmonton, ready to go up north. We’re just not quite sure how to get them to the communities.”

Ouellette said there’s no way the group can financially support the program unless it finds an alternative solution.

“Alternatives would be financial support, maybe collaboration with an organization that is wanting to continue also with the food security to these communities that we deal with in the far reaches of the Northwest Territories,” he said.

By Aastha Sethi, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on May 17, 2024 at 16:49

This item reprinted with permission from   Cabin Radio   Yellowknife, NorthWest Territories