The province is looking to begin work on a long-awaited airport rehabilitation project in Fond du Lac.
Bid documents were posted to the SaskTenders website last week for runway, apron and taxiway rehabilitation, along with some lighting improvements, at the remote community’s airport. Only served by a winter road in the summer and a barge in the winter, Fond du Lac relies on its airport for access year-round.
The improvements were funded in part by a federal government announcement of $12.1 million in February of last year.
The province’s hope is that construction equipment can arrive in the community before freeze-up, as it can only be transported in by barge. Gravel crushing and some lighting work will be completed over the winter, and then, according to Ministry of Highways spokesperson Doug Wakabayashi, construction will begin “in earnest” in the spring.
According to Nick Pearce of the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, the community is eagerly awaiting the work to begin.
“This is the best news (from) the province, the government of Saskatchewan that we’ll hear,” Fond du Lac First Nation Chief Louie Mercredi he said. “They’re finally listening to the cries of the people’s needs from across Saskatchewan.”
While Fond du Lac has ice road access in winter, the airport represents the “main lifeline for the community,” he said.
The work was a “long time coming,” Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron said on Friday.
The province factors in things such as community benefits when considering submissions, including employing Saskatchewan residents to work on the project.
While the project is welcomed by community leaders, they’re still hoping for another project that’s long been on the community’s wishlist — a runway expansion.
According to Wakabayashi, while expansion is listed in this project, that’s just to provide some space for bigger planes to turn around. Fond du Lac has long called for funding to widen and lengthen its runway, especially after a fatal crash in 2017.
That winter crash, resulting in the death of one passenger and serious injuries of others, was eventually attributed to improper de-icing procedures, and an order was made to remedy the situation at remote airports across Canada.
Investigators ruled out runway length.
Still, late last year, West Wind Aviation, which operates flights out of Fond du Lac, called for an expansion to runways there and in Wollaston Lake.
West Wind Aviation operates West Wind and Transwest Air and flies into the community.
The runways at the Wollaston and Fond du Lac airports are shorter than other small airports, measuring at just 3,800 feet long and 75 feet wide. Fond du Lac is hoping for government funding to expand the runway to 5,000 feet and widen it to 150 feet.
A larger runway is needed to operate larger aircraft West Wind says are needed to meet the demand.
“We work closely with our regulator to ensure we are following the most up-to-date practices and guidance for the unique aspects of northern airfields such as Fond du Lac and Wollaston,” said Michael Rodyniuk, president and CEO of West Wind Aviation.
“We always operate with safety as our priority. It is currently cost-prohibitive to fly large aircraft into the community because we can only fly a handful of people out. The proposed improvements to Fond du Lac airfield would remove some of the unique issues created by the shorter runways.”
Smaller planes mean stopovers in Stony Rapids for passengers, as well as longer supply routes and delays.
According to West Wind, smaller airports in the province have 5,000-foot treated runways, including Stony Rapids and Buffalo Narrows.
The tender for the airport’s design closes on Aug. 10, while the construction tender closes on Aug. 11.
Last August, Georgina Jolibois, former NDP MP for Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill, criticized Ottawa for the continued delay, saying the money should have gone directly to Fond du Lac, not the province. Chief Mercredi had also previously said the community felt the province had “abandoned” it over the delayed project.
Responding to Jolibois at the time, Government Relations Minister Lori Carr said the province never received a completed funding application, and the TSB hadn’t found that the runway contributed to the 2017 crash.
Mercredi said he was simply glad to see the project move ahead after the long delays.
“We are the most isolated community in Saskatchewan,” he said. “This rehabilitation is well-needed.”
— With files from Nick Pearce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Saskatoon StarPhoenix.