The shortest distance between two points of contention is the path of a bomb. Or so went the going theory when the Canadian and U.S. governments installed a series of 63 monitoring stations along the 69th parallel. During the Cold War, the perceived threat of an attack from Soviet long-range bombers had military and defense planners fretting that North America would become a future battleground. In 1954, construction began on the Distant Early Warning Line, which stretched from Alaska, across the Canadian North into Greenland, with the U.S. Air Force doing much of the heavy lifting. Operated by both the Canadians and Americans, the system tracked Soviet incursions into Canadian airspace and waters.
The stations varied in size. Some were unmanned, while main stations had their own airstrip, library and garage, along with the giant communication dishes and domes that made up the radar system. The DEW Line led to the development of new communities, like Hall Beach, Nunavut, where people who had previously lived in camps scattered across the Melville Peninsula now settled to take work on or around the sites.
This wasn’t the first time the North was reshaped by world events. Communities grew and infrastructure projects were generally completed with very clear external interests in mind. “You can go project after project and you’ll find relatively few [exceptions],” says Ken Coates, a historian and Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation. Among them is the creation of Iqaluit.
A traditional fishing area for Inuit, the U.S. military constructed its own air base on the site, then known as Frobisher Bay. It was used during World War II as a refuelling base for Europe-bound aircraft. Following the war, the base was used for communications and monitoring purposes until it was briefly decommissioned in 1950. It was reopened as the Frobisher Bay Air Base, a key site for bringing in materials, equipment and personnel to construct the DEW Line. Along with military personnel, many nomadic Inuit settled in the community for jobs and medical services. From there, the population gradually grew and the administrative centre of the eastern Arctic was established.
Often, the external forces that came in and developed the North did so with little warning and without Northerners in mind. Coates points to a classic example: the building of the Alaska Highway.
A route connecting Alaska, Yukon and British Columbia had been discussed between the respective governments through the 1920s and 30s and eventually three options were laid out. The best of them, Coates says, was a route from Prince George, B.C., going north through the Tintina Trench where mining activity was well under way. “Yukoners and Alaskans, if they wanted a road to be built, it would have gone Prince George to Watson Lake, Watson Lake to Dawson City and Dawson City to Fairbanks,” says Coates. “It would have the greatest economic impact, respond to human geography in the area and have the greatest potential for good long-term effects.” Another more scenic but also costly route went through Hazelton, B.C., just off of Dease Lake and through Watson Lake. A third option was rejected out of hand.
Talks sputtered on until December 7, 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. “What happened is the war breaks out and the U.S. government says they’re going to build a highway to Alaska,” says Coates. It was a promotional piece, he says—a feel-good project to prove to Americans their government would do whatever it took to protect them during wartime. (An engineers’ report dubbed the highway “America’s Glory Road.”) The Northwest Staging Route—a series of airstrips, refuelling and radio stations built during the war by the Canadian and U.S. governments—already ran from Minneapolis and North Dakota, northwest to Edmonton and beyond. A group of lobbyists from North Dakota successfully convinced Washington to connect those stations from B.C. on, via the Alaska Highway. The long-considered idea rapidly became reality. Within just a few months, materials were loaded on trains and shipped priority to the end of the steel: Dawson Creek, B.C. This would become Mile Zero of the highway, taking the course of the third—and initially rejected—route. People still living around Dawson Creek and now well into their 80s and 90s remember military trucks arriving from the south—convoys of tankers on the horizon surrounded by farmers’ fields.
In March 1942, crews began clearing the way north. “British Columbia and Washington State were absolutely gob-smacked. It was the hardest to build, most expensive and impossible to maintain,” says Coates. “With great respect to Dawson Creek, the Alaska Highway goes the wrong way.” Working on the Americans’ dime, construction crews from both ends met at the B.C.-Yukon border in September of the same year. Two months later, they celebrated completion with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. (The scissors were separated—one half was sent to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, the other to Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King.)
The highway wasn’t celebrated by all though. It would have an irrevocable effect on the Yukon—and its first peoples in particular. Work crews brought with them influenza and other diseases that devastated First Nations populations. And over time, communities were established along the highway, populated with newly arrived settlers, and nomadic lifestyles slowly disappeared.
The construction of that highway also precipitated another hasty Northern development. The Alaska Highway, and the war effort in general, required a large store of fuel—something the Sahtu Region of the Northwest Territories was rich with. Oil was struck near Norman Wells in 1920 and production began in 1937. The U.S. government sought a way of moving that oil over the Mackenzie Mountains to a refinery in Whitehorse, and on to tidewater in Alaska. In 1942, the U.S. military began work on the Canadian Oil (CANOL) pipeline and a right-of-way, now known as the Canol Trail.
The project was completed within two years but abandoned entirely when the war ended in 1945. The refinery that never worked as efficiently as first hoped was torn down and moved to Alberta, says Coates. Now a haven for hikers and mountain bikers, years of reclamation work have been dedicated to removing wire, rusted out vehicles and other reminders of the Canol Trail’s not so distant past.
Though the Canol Trail serves as an example of the lack of foresight that often afflicts southern decision-makers, much of the North that owes its inauspicious beginnings to reactionary policy is flourishing. Iqaluit has outgrown its airbase origins to become a burgeoning cosmopolitan capital—and a new and improved Iqaluit International Airport is set to open in August, with an expansive terminal building, repaved runways and a new fuelling station.
Still, some projects Northerners have been dreaming about for decades remain southern afterthoughts. The Mackenzie Valley Highway, “a strategic priority for the federal government since the 1950s,” according to the GNWT, has yet to fully connect the north to the south, not to mention the communities along the big river.
“One of the major questions for the North generally is: how do you change the economic future of the North from one that is driven largely by outside forces making decisions that relate to other economies?” says Coates. “How do you change from that to one where northerners are defining the economic future for themselves?”