Chisasibi has been waiting for a proper airport ever since the community relocated from Fort George Island nearly 20 years ago.
The community of 3,000, which is home to the Cree Regional Hospital, is served by an airstrip without lights, no communications facilities, no control tower and no building for travellers to wait in during bad weather or in the event of flight delays.
The airstrip cannot be used at night-time or during the spring thaw, when a large puddle of water covers part of the runway for two to three weeks. In cases of medical emergencies, patients must be driven to the airport in Radisson, 102 kilometres away.
Judge Réjean Paul of the Quebec Superior Court says this situation can’t continue and it’s time for Chisasibi to finally get a decent airport.
“This problem should be solved, and quickly. I don’t care who is responsible for that. The welfare of that community and Crees in general is at stake,” said Judge Paul in an interview with The Nation.
“You need a building there, first of all. And secondly, you desperately need a proper airstrip,” he said.
“The ride between Radisson and Chisasibi in the winter-time is not an easy ride, especially if there is a storm or wind.”
Paul is chairman of the Cree-Naskapi Commission, which was set up to monitor implementation of the Cree-Naskapi Act.
The commission has just released its latest report, which lists many areas where governments have failed to live up to their responsibilities to the Crees, including the Chisasibi airport. In the report, the airport. (See page 14 for our complete interview with Judge Paul.)
Proper facilities haven’t been built because of years of bickering between Quebec and Ottawa over who should build them. Legally speaking, it’s not even clear who owns the land where the airstrip is. The airstrip is surrounded by Category IA land, but Quebec claims that the airstrip itself never got transferred into Cree ownership under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. The ownership of the airstrip is now being decided by the courts.
Quebec also claims the airstrip doesn’t need to be improved because the community already has access to Radisson’s airport.
Meanwhile, the federal Transport Department refuses to upgrade the airstrip since it’s not clear who owns it.
“Transport Canada wouldn’t do anything until the ownership is resolved,” said Sylvain Lessard, the department’s director of airports in Quebec. “We think the owner should do something.”
Lessard acknowledged that Transport Canada is responsible for the safety and security of airports, but said he doesn’t think the lack of facilities poses a safety problem.
“There is a road linking it (Chisasibi) to another airport. The distance is not that extreme.”
What about the patients who need to be medevac’ed? “That’s not related to safety or security because medical procedures are a provincial responsibility,” he said.
Lessard did acknowledge that the airport “is not in very good shape,” and that an upgrade is needed. “We hope to
be in a position next year to do something,” he added.