Stopping the flow: Northern Manitobans call for more restrooms along Highway 6

People in northern Manitoba say they’re fed up with not having enough spots on Highway 6 to go to the bathroom —which they say is not only an inconvenience, but a health and safety issue along the province’s important north-south corridor.

“I’ve travelled from here to Thompson and there is nothing there,” said Veronica Dick, who lives in Grand Rapids — about 330 kilometres south of Thompson down Highway 6.

“You have to go into the bush. You get pricked by all kinds of leaves and you get scared of the wolves.”

Dick works as a janitor at Pelican Landing Gas Station & Restaurant, which has the only 24-hour bathroom on the highway between St. Martin, in Manitoba’s Interlake, and Thompson — a drive of more than 500 kilometres.

“Cleanest bathrooms on Highway 6,” she said with a laugh.

Dick says the gas station is busy around the clock, with regular lineups outside the washrooms.

“You know those big rolls of toilet paper? We go through two a day [per stall],” she said.

“So I always come back in the evening. I do six hours during the day and I come back for another two more hours at night because it just needs me.”

Ted Labelle said he didn’t know about the shortage of bathrooms until he drove to Grand Rapids for for his construction job. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Many of the people passing through the Pelican Landing station travel for work, like Ted Labelle, who was surprised to learn about the shortage of public toilets up north.

“I guess it would depend on the nature of the emergency,” he said with a chuckle.

“I’m not the kind of guy that’s scared to pull over on the side of the road and find a ditch, but I guess it’s not for everybody.”

Those ditches can be an obstacle for families like Brian Trewin’s, who stopped at the gas station on their way home to Leaf Rapids, a drive of about 550 kilometres to the north from Grand Rapids.

Brian Trewin lives in Leaf Rapids and said trips on Highway 6 can be challenging for seniors and female members of his family since they have to navigate steep ditches to find a spot to pee in the bush. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

They’d already stopped twice to relieve themselves along the highway on their way up from Winnipeg and didn’t enjoy the experience.

“The sides of the ditch are steep, or there’ll be lots of shrubs,” said Trewin. “For older people or women, they have a lot more difficulty.”

There used to be washrooms at the Devil’s Lake rest area, about 100 kilometres south of Grand Rapids, but the province removed those toilets years ago.

A gas station in Ponton was another popular stop, until it burnt down in 2018. There are a handful of small service stations between St. Martin and Thompson, but their hours are limited.

The rest area at Devil’s Lake offers a safe place to stop, but the province removed the toilets there years ago. (Emily Brass/CBC)

Very little remains at the former site of the Ponton Junction gas station, a once busy service station that burnt down in 2018. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

A little rest stop for trucks between Grand Rapids and Ponton is one of the very few places where tractor-trailers can pull off safely. But it doesn’t have any bathrooms or garbage cans, and there’s litter all over the ground.

“It’s embarrassing,” said Volker Beckmann, who lives in Thompson. “People leave their used toilet paper there or their dirty diapers.”

Dangerous stretch of highway

While he’s sick of seeing and smelling that waste, Beckmann is even more concerned about safety along Highway 6, especially in the winter.

Manitoba Public Insurance said from 2019 to 2021, Highway 6 between Thompson and Grand Rapids saw an average of 10 collisions per month.

“Every single time a semi comes, there’s blinding snow behind and there’s a second or two when you’re totally in a whiteout,” said Beckmann.

“You can’t see anything. And then you want to stop and have a pee at the side of the road in those dangerous conditions. It’s scary what northerners have to put up with.”

Danielle Adams, who represented Thompson in the Manitoba Legislature, was killed last December on Highway 6 as she tried to pass a semi. The MLA slammed into a truck head-on during stormy conditions.

“There’s still car parts left all over the highway that we saw this summer from that accident,” said Beckmann. “That’s a terrible, terrible thing to have happened.”

Volker Beckmann, who volunteers with the Highway 6 Citizens Action Group, says pulling off the road is especially dangerous in the winter. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

He volunteers with the Highway 6 Citizens Action Group, which includes people from several northern municipalities and First Nations. It’s lobbying the province to widen the route and put in restrooms.

On a recent trip to Thompson, Premier Heather Stefanson promised action.

“The minister of infrastructure and transportation himself has been up in the northern communities recently,” she said on Oct. 14. 

“He is certainly aware of some of the challenges and is very committed to making sure we get this done.”

A spokesperson for Minister Doyle Piwniuk said the limited number of rest areas is a concern, and said “where possible our government will work with local interests when approached to develop wayside rest areas.”

A spokesperson clarified that “local interests” could include the private sector, First Nations and local communities.

Many of the people who pass through the Pelican Landing Gas Station in Grand Rapids travel for work, and say they’ve had close calls pulling off onto the shoulder of Highway 6 to relieve themselves. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Beckmann said the need for rest stops is too great to wait for private sector development.

“What private sector business would set up a washroom in the middle of nowhere?” he asked. “There’s no return on that investment.

“We want the restrooms you have in other places in Canada. That’s the jurisdiction of the provincial or federal governments.”

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