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Northern Store 'successful' getting in supplies even with shorter window for winter road

Director says bigger trucks used the roads at night when the roads weren't slushy
grocery shopping cart food

Although there were some challenges, this winter season has been pretty successful in terms of delivering grocery supplies and construction material to the northern communities, according to the North West Company.

The company operates 118 Northern Stores that sell food and general merchandise in remote northern communities across Canada, including communities along the James Bay coast. 

In winter, trucks deliver the supplies to remote fly-in communities by winter roads. In other seasons, products are brought in by barge or flown in. 

March 22, the James Bay Winter Road closed for the season.

The warmer weather this year meant a later start to the winter road’s construction and an earlier closing, said Mark Blake, director of sales and operations for the James Bay district at the North West Company.

“It was basically a successful season for us,” Blake said. “Even though it was a reduced window this year, reduced timeframe, we were able to be successful. But that thanks to everybody whether it be the managers and their teams working in our stores, the chief and council in the communities and the trucking companies all working together to ensure we could be successful.”

Some days, the temperatures during the day were above freezing, so the bigger trucks had to use the winter roads at night when it was cold enough for the roads not to be slushy, Blake said.

Not all of the gas and diesel product made it to northwestern Ontario communities such as Landsdowne House or Neskantaga, Keewaywin and Fort Severn, he said.

"From the freight side ... we got most of that product into Webequie but we were short three trucks at the end of the day. And then, Keewaywin and Fort Severn, due to winter road issues we weren't able to get freight into those locations," said Blake.

The three trucks that were headed to Webequie had to turn back because the winter road closed before they could get into the community, Blake said. The freight was sent back to Winnipeg, and it will be repackaged and flown in instead.

“Apart from that, we had a pretty good year,” Blake said.

Moosonee and Moose Factory are supplied via train from Cochrane. There’s a period of time in spring and fall when the ice hasn’t melted enough for the barge to operate at the crossing or the ice isn’t thick enough to drive on, Blake said.

“We bulk up in Moose Factory on non-perishables prior to this six to eight week period each spring and fall, so that we are only left to fly perishables and other items we run out of across the river using a helicopter. We got all our freight into Moose Factory this season prior to the crossing closing recently,” he said.

About 18 containers of food and merchandise each were sent to Attawapiskat and Kashechewan as well as some tankers of fuel. Six containers were sent to Fort Albany.

In addition, the company also sent four containers to Kashechewan with materials for some renovations to dwellings and minor upgrades to the store, and 10 containers to Attawapiskat for the store's full retrofit of refrigeration as well as some floor replacement and renovations to one house.

“We did it quickly as soon as the winter road opened. We got them all in because you don’t know how long the road’s going to be available,” Blake said.

Although there’s a winter road to Peawanuck, Blake said it would be uneconomical to send the trucks to the community, so it was cheaper and more viable to fly products in there.

When the James Bay communities went into lockdown because of COVID cases in the region, there were protocols for the winter road truck drivers put in place that were approved by the chief and council in every community, Blake said.

“We agreed on a set of rules to allow the trucks to enter the community. The planning ahead of time resulted in these procedures being in place meant that we didn’t experience any real issues because we all agreed on what we were going to do,” he said. “The COVID-19 really didn’t affect our ability to get freight in.” 

On average, flying in the freight is double the cost, Blake said adding there is also no specific number of how many times a plane will make deliveries because it depends on the weather or the amount of freight ordered by a store.