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Morning construction on the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway near the Beaufort Sea coast. (JEFFREY JONES/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Morning construction on the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway near the Beaufort Sea coast. (JEFFREY JONES/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

The North

Building a road to open up the riches of Canada's North Add to ...

Aided by a highway to move equipment and workers back and forth, Tuktoyaktuk makes an ideal base for Beaufort Sea drilling, say members of the NWT government, including local MLA Jackie Jacobson, one of the biggest proponents of the link to the ocean. Late last year, Imperial Oil Ltd., Exxon Mobil Corp. and BP PLC started the regulatory process that could see multimillion-dollar wells drilled in the icy waters by around the end of this decade.

Remnants of the last energy rush in the 1970s and 1980s remain in Tuktoyaktuk, including worker housing that has since been used and reused by local businesses, and an old drilling caisson the juts up from the ice on the outskirts. That era’s drilling took place close to shore. New wells contemplated by Imperial and its partners would be drilled as far as 175 kilometres northwest of Tuktoyaktuk, requiring new oil field and marine maintenance facilities as well as emergency spill response vessels.

Merven Gruben, the hamlet’s former mayor and an enthusiastic promoter of the region, predicts the highway will bring more than petroleum engineers. He believes it will unleash a wave of tourism as Canadians and others seek adventure in the Arctic.

Tuk, as locals call it, is not ready for such an influx today. It has few stores and no hotels or restaurants, and like most small northern communities, it offers minimal employment and sky-high living costs due to the need to fly in food and other supplies in the summer. It has been connected to Inuvik, the government centre of the region, in winter months by ice road. Round-trip flights cost more than $400.

The highway stands to reduce the overall cost of living in Tuk by $1.5-million annually and increase the gross domestic product of the region by $330,000, according to a report prepared for the NWT government. Tourism spending is projected to increase by $2.7-million a year. “We need the hotels, we need the RV parks, we need the garages. We have to expand our schools and our health centres,” Mr. Gruben said. “Tuk’s never going to be the same again. It’s got to expand. A lot of people will be moving here – families will be moving back here.”

Relaxing in his office after taking a few minutes to slide out onto the ice in his dress shoes to help a group of neighbours free an impressive catch of fish from their net, Mr. Gruben lamented that many young people leave owing to a lack of opportunity at home and high costs.

According to a recent study conducted for Dennis Bevington, the NDP MP for Western Arctic, 23 per cent of NWT residents earned less than $15,000 a year in 2010. The average personal income in Tuktoytaktuk was just over $35,000 a year. Meanwhile, a two-litre carton of milk costs $9 at the local supermarket.

The romanticism of the North endures, though. In early winter, the sun rises in mid-morning and stays low on the horizon, making for long shadows. A flight between Tuk and Inuvik on an Aklak Air Twin Otter turboprop reveals a seemingly endless snow-covered landscape dotted with frozen lakes and ponds. From the shore in Tuk, the frozen Arctic Ocean seems to disappear into an abyss. Flocks of white ptarmigan dart about close to the ground near the pingos – the area’s remarkable conical hills that are formed from the upheaval of ice.

The scene is broken up now by the gravel trucks and heavy machinery laying a roadbed of up to 1.8 metres high, a thickness deemed necessary for protecting the all-important permafrost, especially as climate change provides increased risks. At its peak construction, 250 workers toiling from both ends will be pushing toward the middle of the route.

Resource development will help solve a host of problems in the North, including unemployment, said Floyd Roland, mayor of Inuvik and a former NWT premier.

“As much as people in the rest of Canada want to keep us pristine, we want to make a living,” Mr. Roland said. “My father grew up here and he hunted and trapped and he built snow houses. If I asked my children to live in the conditions he lived in, I don’t think they’d survive very long.”

The town of 3,500 people has been struggling with its own energy crisis as its sole source of natural gas dried up, and the Mackenzie gas project stalled before providing replacement supplies. The irony of a town sitting atop trillions of cubic feet of gas facing a fuel crisis is not lost on Mr. Roland. However, Inuvik’s population base is not large enough to support drilling a new well just for home heating.

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