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Making The High Road

Making The High Road

There's a highway being built to the Arctic Ocean. Finally, the national dream of 'coast to coast to coast' is coming true. The people making it happen? They're our Northerners of the Year.
By Tim Edwards
Dec 16
From the December 2013 Issue

A cigarette hangs from Wayne Cockney’s lips while he deftly pushes a whitefish through one of countless square holes in his fishnet. A boat pulls in about 20 metres down the Beaufort Sea shoreline and Cockney yells back and forth with its occupants. No one’s caught any herring – the good stuff, which everyone in Tuktoyaktuk, NWT is hoping for – but they’ve got plenty of whitefish, plus the occasional prehistoric-looking sculpin to throw to the dogs. The boaters unload their catch. Cockney holds his fish, too small to be worth keeping, upright in the water until it wriggles from his grasp and swims away. As for the big ones, he tosses them into a bin; later he’ll fillet them and hang them in a nearby shanty, where smoke will cure them before it billows lazily out from under the roof. 

Like the many folks in Tuk who hunt and fish full-time, Cockney is at the water constantly – casting out his nets, making tea and casually smoking as he watches the weights bob and sink with each fish that’s snared in the line. He’ll be back here tonight, and tomorrow, and the next day.

It’s always been about the ocean in Tuk. Food came from the water, goods arrived by ship, and industry was based out in the sea. But just a five-minute drive from where Cockney is fishing, a highway is being built, and it’s redefining the focus of this hard-luck Mackenzie Delta community. Now, it’s all about the road. 

Wayne Cockney stands by his fishnet on the shore of the Beaufort Sea. Photo by Angela Gzowski

BACK IN 2009, to sell the federal government on the dream of a Canadian highway reaching the Arctic Ocean, Inuvik’s then-mayor, Denny Rodgers, and Tuktoyaktuk’s ongoing mayor Merven Gruben hired a filmmaker and loaded him aboard a helicopter to trace the planned route on video. It starts in Inuvik, the hub of the Delta, which for 30-odd years has been as far north as you can drive. As the helicopter departs the town, the hinterlands begin. The trees of the Mackenzie River valley grow sparse and disappear as the landscape turns from forest to tundra. The Husky Lakes come into view, then the endless Beaufort Sea. Finally, by the Beaufort Delta’s ancient pingos – towering ice-filled hills pushed up from the permafrost – you come upon the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk, on the northern tip of a peninsula reaching into the ocean.

Ever since it was established in 1928, Tuk has been easy to get to by water, but tough to reach by land. Nowadays, of course, you can fly there year round, and for five months a year it’s connected to Inuvik by a roundabout ice road. Residents see the cost of isolation on their grocery and gas bills, and the town’s remoteness works against bringing in any sort of industry. Jobs are scant and many buildings sit in disrepair.

Tuk is not unusual. Throughout the territories, the farther North you go, the fewer roads there are. In Nunavut, as well as the Arctic regions of northern Quebec and Labrador, exactly zero communities are connected by road to the south, or even to each other. Throughout Canada, not a single highway reaches any of the nation’s 50 majority Inuit communities; not a single road crosses the treeline or reaches the northern ocean. The NWT finished its last stretch of highway, to Wrigley, in 1994; since then, 16 of its 34 communities have remained inaccessible by an all-weather road. In the Yukon, the northernmost community, Old Crow, can be reached only by plane.

In the Beaufort Delta, regional and territorial leaders have been lobbying for decades to change that. A road to Tuktoyaktuk, people like Gruben and Rodgers say, would open Canada up to its third coast, to the Northwest Passage and to vast stores of oil and gas; it would also bring a slew of jobs and money to the region while it’s being built, and might make life a little cheaper for Tuk residents.

Finally, in the last three years, the lobbying reached a head when Northern leaders began appealing to a federal government with an expressed interest in boosting Northern sovereignty, with a leader who seems to be fascinated by the place.

For an infamously guarded and reserved politician, Prime Minister Stephen Harper lets loose on his yearly trips to the Canadian Arctic, ripping around on snowmobiles and ATVs, stomping the ground with Inuvialuit drum dancers. On a trip to Tuk in 2010, he found a friend in Mayor Gruben, and the wheels began to finally turn on the long-discussed road link to the south. 

Gruben remembers when the tide shifted. It was during Harper’s 2010 visit, when he came with Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq. Gruben met with Aglukkaq first, who quizzed him about what he planned to ask for. He had a big wishlist. “She said ‘Make it a one-ask. What do you really want? What do you think’s going to make a difference?’ I said, ‘The road,’ and she said, ‘There you go.’” 

Gruben and Harper met one-on-one in Tuk’s community arena. Gruben hammered away at the road: “When can we get this Tuk-Inuvik highway going? Look how good it’s going to be for sovereignty. We can make the Coast Guard base bigger here, and the Northwest Passage is right here. We can monitor it really easy from Tuk because it’s right on our doorstep.” And don’t forget about all that oil and gas sitting untouched in the Beaufort Sea.

“Leona told me that as they were flying out … the prime minister said ‘Get this project happening; make this project work.’”

“I get along with him very well,” says Gruben. “He knows me to see me now. Every year I go to his barbecue in Calgary – the big just-before-Stampede barbecue.” Gruben has brought along Rodgers, local MLA Jackie Jacobson, former premier Nellie Cournoyea – all people who were instrumental in securing the funding and sparking the political will in both the federal and territorial camps to make the project a reality. Gruben can now use his meetings with Harper to say "Thank you" rather than make his pitch. The key argument the leaders pushed, hammered home in person and on the DVD they produced, played to both Canadian history and Conservative legacy: Finish the highway to the Arctic Ocean and complete famed Tory prime minister John Diefenbaker’s Northern dream, which he heralded in the 1958 election that brought his party to a majority victory, of a road linking Canada’s highways from coast to coast to coast. Diefenbaker called it a “road to resources.”

It hit a nerve, and the Diefenbaker line even made its way into the 2011 speech from the throne announcing the federal government’s support for the project. “We were beside ourselves, it was so exciting,” says Rodgers.

Robert Gruben says the highway will bring opportunities for the hamlet's next generation. Photo by Angela Gzowski

CHANCES ARE, if you visit Tuktoyaktuk you’re going to meet a Gruben. At 16 entries in a tiny town of 900 people, it’s the most common surname in Tuk’s section of the NWT phonebook. And if you’re in town on business, the Gruben you’re most likely to meet is Merven, who’s not just the mayor but also the president of the town’s biggest private employer, E. Gruben’s Transport.

The progenitor of Tuk’s Gruben dynasty was John Gruben, a German who immigrated to America in the early 1900s. He came North on a whaling ship, met an Inuvialuk named Mary, and stayed. Their son Eddie, Merven’s grandfather, launched E. Gruben’s Transport in the 1950s. “They started with dog teams,” says Merven, “hauling stuff around, moving stuff for the RCMP – fish, gas, fuel, supplies.” They made enough money to buy a Bombardier snow-tractor, then another one. It was the beginning of an empire. 

Nowadays, depending on the season, E. Gruben’s has up to 250 employees and offices in Tuktoyaktuk and Edmonton. It specializes in building ice roads, but also owns hotels and conducts contaminated-site remediation. Merven started at the company young. “I was driving pickup when I was eight, and then I was driving our Caterpillar equipment when I was 12. Ever since, I haven’t stopped.” In his early 30s, though, back problems forced him out of the field into the office. He started running the company and also made the jump into politics. “I just figured I could make a difference, being young at the time.” He was elected to hamlet council in 1996, and then took over the mayoral seat in 2008. 

Gruben has two offices at the E. Gruben’s complex, each fitting a different side of his personality. There’s his functional office, with a computer and phone and chairs for visitors, where he works as president of the company. Then there’s the storage office, which is much more about Merv. Stapled to the walls are photos of Gruben with numerous dignitaries, Stephen Harper included. Ringing the ceiling are rows of baseball caps from all around the world. There are boxes of T-shirts reading “Tuktoyaktuk: Beyond Cool”, and a framed painting of Kramer from Seinfeld, (“I just had to get it,” he says, chuckling).

Gruben admits that his business and political roles cross over – though, he says, he tries to keep conversations about one separate from the other. As mayor, he’s spent countless hours trying to secure a road that will bring his community out of an economic slump. As president, he’s head of a business that’s eager to get the contract to build it.

In 2009, E. Gruben’s secured federal funding to build an access road to a gravel source 18 kilometres out of Tuk. The company built it in a way that, with a few upgrades, it would literally pave the way for something bigger. Last year, the company got a $20-million job to upgrade the road to highway quality. As of October this year, the work was almost done. Muddy and rutted, it wasn’t much to look at – a wide trail of grime winding through the tundra.

When the federal funding for the all-weather road was announced in 2011, E. Gruben’s formed a joint venture with Inuvik-based Northwind Industries and entered negotiations (still ongoing, as of press time) with the government of the NWT on the contract to design and build it.

The finished highway will be close to 140 kilometres long, with eight bridges, to be built over four years, starting this winter. The budget is $300 million; an estimated 200 people each on the Tuk and Inuvik sides will work on it. It will be the biggest project Tuk has seen in decades.

The home of Eddie Gruben, founder of one of the Beaufort Delta's biggest companies. Photo by Angela Gzowski

IN THE 1970s AND ’80s, Tuk was booming with oil and gas exploration work in the Beaufort Sea. “Tuk had the busiest airport in the NWT for one day,” recalls fisherman Wayne Cockney. The world’s major industrial countries faced petroleum shortages at the beginning of the 1970s, after U.S. oil production peaked, and, in 1979, the Iranian Revolution disrupted global supply from the region. In the 1970s and ’80s, oil and gas exploration and production were increasing worldwide. The largest known oil and gas deposit in the Beaufort Sea, the Amauligak field, was discovered, and Gulf Oil shipped 317,000 barrels of oil from it to Japan in 1986 as a demonstration. Multinational companies like Dome Petroleum, Gulf and Imperial Oil held leases throughout the Beaufort Sea, dredging the bay around Tuk and using the sludge to build out the peninsula. 

The town’s population climbed to nearly 3,000. Hardly anyone was relying on social assistance to get by. But then the boom went bust. In 1986, the price of oil dropped from $27 a barrel to less than $10. Alberta, as well as Mexico, Nigeria, Venezuela and Russia, were all producing more supply than the world wanted. Interest in the Beaufort
Sea – with its extreme climate, winter darkness and, of course, isolation – deflated fast.

Almost three decades later, Tuk is down to just over 900 residents, about 300 of whom are children. The community’s few big employers – the hamlet, the Northern store, E. Gruben’s – don’t have enough jobs for everyone. There’s a 26 per cent unemployment rate; more than one in five receive social assistance. Water trucks, dump trucks and Tuk’s two cabs drive around with purpose in an otherwise sleepy hamlet, but there’s not much else on the road. 

Will the highway make a difference? “Absolutely,” says Tom Matus, the town’s outgoing senior administrative officer, whose desk sits opposite a wall-sized map of the Beaufort Sea. The map is dotted with prospective oil patches that he says the road might open up to development. “This town used to be big back in the ’70s and ’80s when there were all these [oil and gas] leases going on. No reason that wouldn’t happen again.” 

A long time coming - Tuktoyaktuk mayor Merven Gruben waits by the side of the road leading out of the community. Photo by Angela Gzowski

LUCKY POKIAK has a polar bear skull and a set of muskox horns on the deep-freezer outside his house to attract bids from passers-by. Along with carving, selling skulls helps him pay for the gas, food and equipment he needs to go hunting. A simple Ski-Doo trip to hunt caribou, muskox or polar bear could easily cost him $400 in fuel, he says – but that’s better than the alternative. “We try and spend our money on gas rather than meat at the store,” he says. “The beef here is crazy. A couple steaks is like $27. I’ve got four kids. Two steaks isn’t enough for all of us.” 

Still, hunting is a hard way to support his family. Pokiak is just starting an apprenticeship as an electrician, which means he’ll soon be hunting less and working more. It’s a good thing, he says. With the road coming in, his electrician’s certification should be money in the bank. On top of that, he says, the road could make things like groceries cheaper. “It’s going to be a big change for sure,” says Pokiak. “Hopefully the cost of living will go down.”

Yet the road is not without its critics. Bob Bromley, a Yellowknife MLA, told the legislative assembly last March that he was having “visions of the Deh Cho Bridge kerfuffle all over again.” Bromley was referring to the recent spanning of the Mackenzie River at Fort Providence, the cost of which ballooned from $55-million to $202 million before it was finished. 

Moreover, not everyone sees an end of isolation as a good thing. During consultations on the Tuk highway, some hunters expressed concern that it would hurt wildlife populations. In other isolated communities, elders have worried aloud that roads could open their communities to a influx of drugs and alcohol. And of course, highways aren’t guaranteed to bring economic prosperity. Since Wrigley got its road 20 years ago, its population has dropped. Some fear that a road will just provide locals with an easier way to move out.

Renowned local carver Joe Nasogaloak finishes a piece in his workshed behind his home. Photo by Angela Gzowski

Locals have their concerns too. One Tuk resident, waiting in the airport to take his son to Inuvik for a hockey camp, welcomes the road. But when asked why there are so many boarded-up buildings around town – houses, government offices, hotels – he shrugs and says the community’s leaders are so preoccupied with the road that other projects are neglected. Local artist Joe Nasogaloak says smaller infrastructure projects would create far more employment than one large project like the road, and the community would see benefits sooner. With a job like the road, he says, “the same people get the jobs, and the same people are struggling.”

As he pours tea for his visitors on the shore of the Beaufort Sea, Wayne Cockney chuckles and says he doubts the costs of groceries will decrease. “The Northern store always has high prices.” But there’s no doubt that life will be better once the road is in. “For sure, it will make a lot of difference. People will be able to shop in Inuvik a lot cheaper than here.” Despite all the talk of nation-building, history-making, industry-creating and employment-boosting, that’s what means the most to the people who live there.

Once the Tuk Highway is in place, Merven Gruben is positive everything else will fall into place. Tuktoyaktuk will need campgrounds, hotels and garages for tourists coming north to dip their toes in the Arctic Ocean. If the road spurs oil and gas activity, the hamlet will  need to build more housing, and expand its infrastructure. Going hand-in-hand with this necessity for growth will be the ability to bring in the materials to build it anytime of the year.

But growth won’t happen tomorrow. Even when the road is finished, it will be a slow process for Tuktoyaktuk to rival Inuvik in size and population (Merven resolutely maintains it will overtake it). Oil and gas developers might be able to check off a logistical hurdle with the highway finished, but they still have to navigate the heavily politicized regulatory regime before they can drill. The door to Tuk, though, will be open. Whether the opportunities come sooner or later, at least they’ll have a route in. As Merven’s cousin, Robert Gruben, past chair of Tuk’s community corporation, says: “We all have kids. We gotta think about them.”