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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 ...

The mayor is studying gas-to-liquids technology that would make use of the reserves in the region, but in large enough quantities to supply other communities as well as yield diesel fuel. The highway would improve access to a plant and gas wells throughout the year.

Until then, a liquefied natural gas facility opened this month, allowing power to be generated from that fuel rather than what’s been burned as a substitute – more costly and carbon-intensive diesel fuel. Still, the liquid gas must be imported from the south.

In Inuvik, the new highway starts along Navy Road, where until recently industrial yards were packed with oil and gas equipment in anticipation of a drilling boom that was to accompany the development of the Mackenzie gas pipeline.

Last month, Imperial Oil, the project’s lead partner, told the National Energy Board it did not know when it might proceed, although chief executive officer Rich Kruger has already said Mackenzie reserves could eventually be developed as part of a multibillion-dollar liquefied natural gas project that encompasses other gas holdings in Canada. It would be several years off, though – if it happens at all.

The Inuvialuit are partners in the Aboriginal Pipeline Group, set up to own a one-third interest in the pipeline along the Mackenzie River Valley to southern markets, now estimated to cost at least $20-billion. The delay has brought disappointment as they, along with the Gwich’in and Sahtu people, had counted on jobs, business opportunities and a revenue stream from the ownership stake.

The regulatory review took six years to complete and, in that time, the natural gas market changed with the evolution of hydraulic fracturing technology and development of massive shale gas reserves located much closer to consumers. The lack of a hard deadline to complete the review was the main problem, said Nellie Cournoyea, CEO of Inuvialuit Regional Corp. and herself a former NWT premier.

Now, an all-weather road offers opportunities to move past the experience and seek out new development and employment ideas, Ms. Cournoyea said. It also will allow her people to become less reliant on the social safety net.

“The Inuvialuit are used to working and having an opportunity to work. When you take that opportunity to work and expand your horizons, you’re really creating an attitude towards how far you can go in life. Inuvialuit have been explorers and travellers for centuries, without government support until a short number of years ago, that’s the way we lived. I lived that way,” she said.

“The world is getting very small, and the Arctic is such a fundamental part of the evolution of where Canada’s going to go that we have to be prepared to make sure we’re involved with that, and we’re able to contribute towards that, because we’re not only Inuvialuit but we’re Canadians as well.”

Still, some warn about the loss of traditional culture in the Far North, where hunting and trapping had long produced the main food sources and generated export income. It remains an important industry.

Robert Alexie, president of the Gwich’in Tribal Council, said his people will enjoy some of the economic benefits along with the Invialuit as more tourists travel to the Beaufort via the Dempster Highway and then along the new route. The Gwich’in settlement region borders that of the Inuvialuit.

However, the Dempster, the route opened in 1979 that runs to Inuvik from Dawson City, Yukon, changed life in the region forever and, he said, its shows a big risk that the Inuvik-to-Tuktoyaktuk project brings.

“Before we had the Dempster Highway, our people used to go up into the mountains with their snowmobiles, their dogs, spend a couple of days going up, a couple of days hunting and a couple of days coming back, “ Mr. Alexie said at the Gwich’in office in Inuvik.

“Today, they go up before supper, take an hour or an hour and a half, another hour to hunt and another hour to get back home and it’s done. It takes away. We’re having a lot of problems now with our young people over-harvesting, harvesting indiscriminately, wasting meat.”

But the trade-off is prospects for resource development and expended tourism that could keep more young people at home, especially if the activity spawns education opportunities. The Arctic road could be a catalyst for that, Mr. Alexie said. The trick is ending the cycle of boom and bust.

“It will bring in more exploration. But we have to get off our collective butts and find a way to export the natural resources in this region,” he said. “We have oil and gas up there and it’s not getting anywhere. We have to get it out.”

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