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To Connect To The World

To Connect To The World

Escape, invasion, industry and affordability—a road means many things in the North, but mostly it means change
By Herb Mathisen
Apr 24
2017
From the April 2017 Issue

"This weekend was crazy, I tell you.”

Albert Nitsiza heard a knock on his door at 5 a.m. on a Sunday in February. A young man, in town from Behchokǫ̀, had been drinking and drove his vehicle into a ditch. He wanted a tow out. “Some young guy behind the house said, ‘Go phone the cops. Don’t help him out,’” says Nitsiza. “But I don’t want to do that.” He helped the young man out and told him he should go straight home. “I called his mom,” says Nitsiza. “I told her that her son was drinking and I hope he’s okay. She’s going to talk to her son.”

Wake-up calls like this are a minor irritant this time of year. For two to three months every winter,  the 104-kilometre winter road to Whatì, NWT, opens up and the fly-in community feels a little closer to the rest of the world. It begins at Highway 3 on the north arm of Great Slave Lake and heads north for a 30-kilometre straight shot over Marian Lake, before rollercoastering up and down portages and through old burn areas and boreal forest inhabited by moose and great grey owls.

It’s a time of excitement. “When the first ice road comes into Whatì, you can see maybe a dozen vehicles driving around, coming to visit,” says Nitsiza, a hunter and politician in his mid 50s, born and raised in Whatì, who has served on just about every local board imaginable. “They want some fish, they just want to come visit friends.” For locals, the road lets them get out of town on their own volition, to experience a bit of freedom. Yellowknife (with its cheap diapers, fuel and food, its territorial hospital, its movie theatre) is only 2.5 hours away and Behchokǫ̀, the centre of the Tłįchǫ government and its largest community, is even closer. The road is a pressure-release valve for residents who must otherwise fly in and out of their community the rest of the year—a nearly $500 return trip to Yellowknife. 

But the connection has some unintended consequences. Sales at the Tłįchǫ-owned community food store dip during winter road time with so many leaving to shop at Wal-Mart and the supermarkets in Yellowknife. Sunday mass, Nitsiza says, drops to just 30 or 40 people, when the church would otherwise be packed in the summer. Sometimes, Whatì even feels like a ghost town on weekends when residents head to Behchokǫ̀ to see family or play bingo. And then there’s the alcohol and drugs that come in on the road. Whatì is a dry town; Yellowknife certainly is not that.

In January, government officials from all levels converged on the town of 500 to announce an all-weather road into the community was all but going ahead. The federal government would foot up to 25 percent of the $150 to $200 million bill; the territorial government would put up the rest. The news was welcomed by Tłįchǫ leaders and a mining company, Fortune Minerals, which had been lobbying for a road to its NICO project just 49 kilometres from Whatì.

Suddenly, this all-season road, a hypothetical proposition the community had kicked around for more than two decades, was going to be a reality. It left some to wonder if the novelty of coming and going would wear off with a permanent connection to the outside world? Or if the types of early morning wake-up calls Nitsiza got that Sunday would soon become the new normal?

 

FOR NORTHERN GOVERNMENTS, roads mean jobs and funding these multi-million-dollar projects is an effective way to inject economic stimulus into regions that sorely need it. There might be upwards of 250 people working for four years on the Whatì road construction. Following that, the road would likely require a dozen maintenance staff to clear snow in winter and fix potholes during the summer. The Tłįchǫ government hopes to maximize local employment in both instances.

Spinoff benefits are harder to predict. The road definitely improves the business case for Fortune Minerals’ NICO gold-cobalt-bismuth-copper project, increasing the likelihood of it bringing jobs to the Tłįchǫ region along with tax and Impacts and Benefits Agreement revenues to governments. But the company still needs $589 million to build the mine. Whatì sits on the shores of massive and pristine Lac La Martre, which teems with trophy pike. Will easier accessibility bring it more visitors and spur tourism and hospitality businesses?

“You have to have infrastructure if you want to have economic development,” says Russell Neudorf, deputy minister of transportation with the GNWT. “When you expand that infrastructure, then you’re encouraging economic development—you’re creating more opportunities.”

Tourism was touted as a reason for building the $300-million highway from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk—the final stretch in the Canadian highway network that links all three oceans. The town is preparing to celebrate the highway’s completion in November as part of the country’s 150th birthday. But before any rubber even hit the road, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced an oil exploration ban in the Arctic, which was an industry Tuktoyaktuk was hoping to court with its new piece of infrastructure.

Yet, even with all the potential and prosperity that can come with a road, some communities would rather do without one. Old Crow is the only Yukon town without highway access, but that’s more of a conscious decision than a fiscal shortcoming. “Once you put in an all-season road, it’s easy access to hunting,” says Pauline Frost, Vuntut Gwitchin MLA. “There will be added pressure on the Porcupine caribou habitat, the wintering habitat and that’s significant to Vuntut Gwitchin.” Elders advised that protecting the caribou—a vital food source for the community—and keeping the land closed to industrial development should be priorities and so today Old Crow builds a winter road every three years and plans infrastructure projects around it. The community of 300 brings in three-years’ worth of supplies on the temporary road and sends out waste metals and materials. “The last trip in we built the Arctic Co-op and we built a state-of-the-art fuel facility,” says Frost.

Recognizing that without a road the community would be reliant almost exclusively on air transportation, local leadership decided to buy into the airline that flies into their town. Vuntut Gwitchin own 49 percent of Air North and its investment in the airline allowed the company to add jets to its fleet 15 years ago. “And since then, the company has grown exponentially and we continue to grow,” says Frost. “We’ve invested in the resource because we see it as an opportunity to provide opportunities for sustaining and maintaining our way of life.”

 

BACK IN 2011, Albert Nitsiza went around town and canvassed residents’ opinions of a proposed road and compiled a report for the community government. “I interviewed about 98 people,” he says. “Pretty well all the houses I went to.” Nitsiza was turned away at some doors—people knew what he was there for and they didn’t want to talk. Emotions ran high. Nitsiza gave these people a day or two to cool down. When he returned, he explained that he just wanted to record their thoughts—it didn’t matter if they were for or against the road—and he was invited in. “I just listened. When we talked, I just wrote down what they said,” he says. “I listened because I didn’t want to interfere in what they said.”

What he found was 82 percent of residents supported the road, but often with caveats and concerns. “Pretty well all the same story—they said no at the beginning and towards the end they kind of gave me the green-light because it’s going to be cheaper.” He also found while many young people wanted the road for the opportunities it would open up, elders were more reserved in their support, citing fears about a loss of traditions and also the peace and quiet people in Whatì enjoy.

“I call elders ‘the brakes’ because they’re always cautious. ‘You want to do something? Be cautious,’” says Nitsiza. “There’s more young people and less elders. We only got about 16 elders in our community. And there’s no more brakes.”

Nitsiza remembers bumping into friend and long-time Northern media personality Tony Buggins in the late-1990s and hearing from him what happened in Fort Resolution after the road came in during the 1960s. Many young people left for Hay River or Edmonton. Attendance at community drum-dances and seasonal feasts dwindled. People got jobs at the Pine Point mine instead of living off the land. “That might happen here,” says Nitsiza.

He finds himself in the middle on the road. He’s middle-aged and his life is in Whatì. But he knows young people will have more options with the road. They’ll have big life decisions to make. Will they stay or be lured away by the city? What would that mean for Whatì? He notes the slow decline in traditional harvesting today. “People are busy working,” he says. Even to go out hunting you need to pay for gas for your Ski-Doo. “Like elders say, all that big land just sitting there. No footprint, nothing. Nobody walks on it, nobody works on it.” The road could accelerate that. And once it is in, it’s in—there’s no turning back the clock. “We’re going to be driving on that road in the next four years,” says Nitsiza. “But are we ready for it?”

Sleds and off-roaders

The Kivalliq slowly forges road links

Photo by Paul Aningat

A billion-dollar road idea to connect northern Manitoba to Nunavut's Kivalliq communities gets floated at each and every Arctic business conference held in Winnipeg. But wouldn't there be benefits to just linking the Kivalliq communities with each other?

Arviat resident Keith Collier thinks so. A road between Whale Cove and the Kivalliq hub of Rankin Inlet would only be about an hour’s drive. “That’s really nothing,” he says. “You could potentially have people that live in Whale Cove who commuted to Rankin a couple days a week.” And since hockey is so huge in the Kivalliq, roads would make each hamlet’s tournament even more raucous. “It’s tens of thousands of dollars to bring a hockey team anywhere to do anything. We could have paid for a team van a dozen times by now if there was any way to actually use it.”

Hamlets are already doing what they can. Arviat, the Kiv's southern-most town, has been slowly pushing its community access trail towards Rankin Inlet—it now ends about 40 miles to the north, permitting mostly ATV and snowmobile traffic. Though it hasn’t been engineered, maintained or graded for cars or transport trucks, pick-up trucks can use it. And Whale Cove has built a snowmobile trail all the way to Rankin Inlet.