01/11/2012 09:02 EST | Updated 03/12/2012 05:12 EDT

Remote First Nations declare ice-road emergency

Remote Manitoba First Nations that rely on winter ice roads to get groceries, fuel and other essential supplies fear a shortened season due to a mild start to winter.

Several First Nations communities declared states of emergency on Wednesday, saying the delay in winter road construction could result in a shorter season, which in turn would mean higher shipping prices.

"We know already the season is too late," Grand Chief David Harper of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents the province's northern First Nations, told reporters in Winnipeg.

"Even [with] the cold spell that we're going through right now … the prediction is it's going to be a late opening and an early closure."

More than 30,000 Manitobans in about 20 communities rely on winter roads, which are built on frozen lakes and on land every winter, according to the provincial government.

This year, the construction of those roads has been delayed because of above-normal temperatures during the first few weeks of winter.

Roads being built

Larry Halayko, a director with the provincial Infrastructure and Transportation Department, said the opening of ice roads in southern regions is a few weeks behind schedule.

About 100 people are working on getting the roads ready, Halayko said. The southern ice roads should open within the next two weeks.

"They're out packing the road to get frost in and clearing off excess snow where it needs to be, as well as flooding the ice to help build up the ice to get some additional strength," he told CBC News.

The construction of ice roads in the far north is on schedule, meaning they should open next week, Halayko said.

"The way the weather's working out with the warm weather, it's slowing down the build-up of ice. So when we do open some of these routes they may be initially to restricted loading," Halayko said.

"So we're not out of the woods yet, but this colder weather certainly does help."

Chiefs want all-weather roads

Meanwhile, Harper said northern chiefs are calling on the Manitoba and federal governments to speed up the creation of an all-weather road system in the region.

The chiefs also demanded a system to be put in place whenever ice road construction is delayed, to ensure affected communities don't have to operate in crisis mode.

"Let's do it in a way that all three levels [of government] can work together and develop a viable plan," said Chief David McDougall of St. Theresa Point, Man.

"In the past, when this has happened, we have had to deal with exorbitant pricing."

McDougall said trucking companies that transport supplies to remote communities generally raise their prices when the ice road season is reduced, putting First Nations under financial pressure.

Federal government officials have said they will help northern First Nations with costs if needed.