The chief of a Northern Saskatchewan First Nation says a substandard airstrip places his people in danger every time they fly into or out of their community.
Fond du Lac Denesuline Nation Chief Louie Mercredi was behind a resolution passed earlier this month by the Assembly of First Nations regarding safe transportation into remote communities in northern Canada.
“I don’t want to see other communities across Canada go through what we have gone through. Dec. 13 is the night that destroyed my community,” Mercredi said.
That night, a Wind Wind Aviation ATR 42-320 aircraft en route to Stony Rapids went down shortly after taking off from the Fond du Lac airstrip.
All 22 passengers and three crew members on board were hurt. Arson Jr. Fern, 19, died two weeks later on Christmas Day of injuries sustained in the crash.
According to family, Fern lived with cerebral palsy and was on the plane to get to a medical appointment. He suffered broken legs, a broken pelvis, internal bleeding and a collapsed lung in the crash.
“This crash was avoidable. This death was avoidable,” Mercredi said.
“Transport Canada, the provincial government, federal government knew that we had a substandard runway, but still operated under commercial regulations.”
He said the Fond du Lac runway is 3,800 feet long, while standard runways are 5,000 feet and greater.
“Our runway is short, it’s narrow. It’s not suitable for the plane that went down,” Mercredi said.
“The planes are getting bigger, more people travelling. There’s up to 2,800 people that come through my community on an annual basis.”
An initial report released in April by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board did not list the runway length as a possible factor in the crash
The report stated the plane wasn’t de-iced before takeoff, but it’s still not known whether this contributed to the crash, which remains under investigation.
Mercredi said the de-icing equipment available at the airstrip is essentially just a small gardening sprayer.
“How do you reach out, 20 feet up in the air, to de-ice a wing with just a gardening container?” he said.
The chief said the provincial government has put forward a request for proposals on improving the design and engineering of the airport.
However, Mercredi said he’ll only stop lobbying once he sees equipment and people out working on the runway.
“I was elected as chief in September, and I’ve been dealing with crisis ever since.”
The province owns 17 airports, Fond du Lac among them, which together cost about $2 million a year to maintain.
A Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure spokesperson said via email that the Fond du Lac runway is due for re-surfacing. They said they’d look into possibly expanding the runway as part of that project, in light of industry trends towards larger aircraft.
No cost estimate was available as the design work remains in the early stages.
—With files from Daniella Ponticelli