NDP vows to permanently fix Cumberland House highway if elected

Vehicles, including a large truck are bogged down along a stretch of Hwy 123 leading to the village of Cumberland House. -- Photo from the change.org petition.

Saskatchewan NPD leader Carla Beck vowed that an NDP government would fix the road into Cumberland House if elected, but said in the meantime the provincial government needs to step-in and provide relief.

Beck, along with NDP Highways Critic Trent Wotherspoon and Cumberland MLA Doyle Vermette said Hwy 123 needs significant improvement to provide stability to Saskatchewan’s oldest community.

“It’s simply not acceptable that this government hasn’t risen to the occasion,” Wotherspoon said. “They’ve been asleep at the switch while this community has been vulnerable and isolated and incurring many, many costs and lots of damage to vehicles.”

Wotherspoon called on the province to deploy a building team that could maintain the road in the short-term while plans are finalized for long-term upgrades. He also said the province should be prepared to airlift in supplies like food, fuel, or medicine if road conditions worse.

The NDP is particularly concerned about a 90km stretch of gravel road passed Junction 55. Even in paved areas, the NDP said road conditions are unacceptable.

“The people of Cumberland House and Cumberland House Cree Nation deserve a government that will work with local leaders to get the road fixed,” Beck said. “If our team has the privilege of forming government, that’s exactly what we will do, but in the short-term, action is needed.”

Vermette has been an MLA for the last 16 years, and said the highway has been an issue for longer than he’s been in office. On Monday, he urged the Premier to visit Cumberland House himself and see what residents have to deal with.

“The government is not taking it serious, and they need to,” he said.

According to the Provincial Map of Highway Construction Projects for 2024-25, there are two gravel projects scheduled for Hwy 123.

Wotherspoon said there has been constant work on the road over the past few years without conditions improving.

“These constant band aids on Hwy 123 are super expensive and aren’t working,” he said. “It leaves the community in a very isolated and very vulnerable way, so responding to emergency after emergency isn’t good enough. We need a long-term solution.”

Wotherspoon also criticized the government’s decision to reduce spending on northern roads in the 2024-25 budget. According to budget documents, the province earmarked $73.5 million to build, operate, and maintain the transportation system in the north in 2024-25. That’s down from the $89.4 pledged for northern Saskatchewan transportation in 2023-24.

Premier Scott Moe was asked about Hwy 123 during a media scrum in Regina on Monday. Moe said it’s “not the best road,” especially with the high amounts of rainfall, but said the government was committed to a long-term solution.

He also said Highways Minister Lori Carr would be making the trip north to discuss the highway in-person with local leaders.

“It’s unfortunate that the road is in the state of disrepair, let’s say, due to the rains this spring, but we’ll get the investment and get the road stabilized this summer, and have a little conversation about ‘what is the long-term investment into that road’ and I think some other northern roads as well,” Moe said.

The Premier added that the government spent a lot of money post-pandemic on northern roads, but said “obviously, we need a little bit more.”

The Ministry of Highways has invested $2.47 million in maintenance on Hwy 123 from the Junction of Hwy 55 to Cumberland House over the past three years, according to a government statement. That covers about 138 km. The ministry also invested roughly $4.3 million to improve the highway in 2019. Work included raising the grade of the road and widening it.

The Ministry plans to spend around $3.3 million improving Hwy 123 south of Cumberland House this construction season.

In the short-term, the Ministry has restricted truck weight to eight tonnes to prevent additional road damage. The Ministry has pledged to work with trucking companies to ensure food, fuel, and other supplies can reach Cumberland House residents.

The Ministry has placed roughly 15 truckloads of rock material to strengthen a three km segment of road south of the community. A contractor has also been placed on site to help pull motorists out as required.