It may have gone unnoticed in the rest of the country, but the federal government’s very first election goodie apparently went to the Crees.
A 17-year wait for Chisasibi finally came to an end on April 22 when the feds pledged $1.8 million to give the community’s airstrip a much-needed facelift. A federal election was called just days later.
But the election goodie has proven to be a dud. The feds announced they would spend $1.8 million to “refurbish” the gravel runway, build a taxiway and parking area for planes, install runway lighting and install a temporary equipment shed.
Even with the new spending, however, the airstrip will still have no electricity. The feds have refused to pay for a transmission line to bring power to the site, and without electricity, the lights are useless.
Chisasibi especially needs the lights because it is home to the Cree regional hospital. Medical evacuations are often needed during night-time. Without lights, night-time landings are impossible and medical traffic must go through the better-equipped airport at LG-2,102 kilometres away.
The Chisasibi band has written to Hydro-Quebec asking the utility to build a power transmission line to the airstrip, but a Quebec government source told us privately it’s not likely that HQ will do so.
Chief Charles Bobbish said the lights could end up being powered by a generator. But that is just a “bandaid” solution: “What happens if the generator doesn’t work one evening?” he asked.
Another problem: Chisasibi, which is the largest Cree community, still won’t be getting a building for Air Creebec staff to work in, navigational equipment, and passengers and those accompanying them. Other, smaller Cree communities with airports have such buildings.
Finally, the feds turned down a Cree request that the airstrip be extended from 3,000 to 5,000 feet. Quebec’s air ambulance planes need 5,000 feet to land, plus airports with advanced navigational gear. The two Inuit communities with regional hospitals, Puvirnituq and Kuujjuaq, are blessed with airstrips 5,000 feet or longer and equipped with the necessary equipment. Chisasibi will have neither.
“I’m not too impressed. Our whole objective is to get a real airport with everything in it,” said Bobbish. “We’re taking chances every time we land. That money has been a long time coming.”
Ottawa is responsible for safety and security of Canadian airports. Sylvain Lessard, federal director of airports in Quebec, said he “pushed” to get Chisasibi the $1.8 million before the election. As for the money still needed, he said Chisasibi can ask Quebec. A Quebec official responded to this by laughing. “We don’t have any programs for that.” He held out one hope for Chisasibi: appeal directly to the transport ministers of Quebec and Canada for special funding.
Last fall, Quebec Judge Rejean Paul condemned the feds for leaving Chisasibi with an unsafe airport for so many years. “This problem should be solved, and quickly…The welfare of that community and Crees in general is at stake.”