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The bridge to the future Add to ...

According to the most recent data, about one in seven people live on income support payments from the territorial government, the NWT's equivalent of welfare. For many residents of Fort Providence, life comes down to a hard decision between unemployment or abandoning their community.

Maxine Lacorne is only 18 years old, but she is already faced with the difficult decision of leaving behind her birthplace, family and heritage, or pursuing her ambition of becoming a wildlife officer. For Ms. Lacorne -- who will use her savings from working at the diner to help pay for her schooling -- the need for a job has trumped the pull of Fort Providence. "Mostly, everyone ends up back here, but I don't want that," she says.

One of those who have remained in Fort Providence is 27-year-old Colin Causca, who has never had a full-time job. He'd like to be a welder, helping to build the bridge, perhaps moving on to Yellowknife after the construction is done. Until then, he spends his days on the Mackenzie River. "It's waiting, waiting for the good training."

Other aboriginal communities in the Northwest Territories have diamond riches, or oil and gas. For the Deh Gah Got'ie in Fort Providence, the bridge is the one opportunity to steer out of economic backwaters.

Fort Providence is already feeling the effects of the megaproject-driven expansion elsewhere in the territory, however. The high pay on offer there is luring away anyone with technical skills, leaving the local equipment shop unable to find a heating mechanic.

The bridge -- which will charge tolls only on commercial trucks -- will generate about $100,000 in profit annually for Fort Providence after its fifth year. Financing has already been lined up, so construction could begin as soon as January, if a final deal is struck next month as expected, Mr. Vandell says.

There would be construction work for up to 30 band members, and permanent jobs for six people. The grander ambition is to use the bridge project as a springboard to create a tourism industry centred around fishing expeditions on the Mackenzie. Eco-tourism would be an ideal marriage between the modern economy and traditional hunting and fishing, Mr. Vandell says. "A lot of people don't want to work in diamonds, or oil and gas."

The bridge project is one of the many ways in which aboriginal bands are assuming a more prominent role in the economy of the Northwest Territories.

In other areas, aboriginal-owned corporations -- usually an offshoot of the local band -- have sprouted up to provide catering and construction services to resource industries, giving some aboriginal communities tens of millions in revenue.

In Fort Providence, there have been only a few tentative steps in that direction. The band has struck a partnership with the operator of the ferry, a white entrepreneur named Sieg Phillip.

Mr. Phillip arrived in Fort Providence in the early 1960s, a few years after he escaped from East Germany. The hamlet could hardly be called sprawling today, but it has grown considerably since Mr. Phillip's arrival: He says he remembers when it had just one street, a time when the native population spent a good part of the year living in tents.

Over the years, he built up a cluster of businesses, including a hotel, restaurant, bar, café, craft store and mechanic's shop. One of his sons has been running the business, but 40 years of family ownership could soon end. He and the Deh Cho are trying to settle on a purchase price for the businesses, which could be the foundation for the band's plans to build a tourism industry in Fort Providence.

The Deh Cho's plans are modest, compared with the billions that will be spent this decade to extract diamonds in the east of the Northwest Territories or to pipe natural gas from the shores of the Arctic Ocean. The bridge's $55-million budget is but a rounding error when set against the $5-billion it will likely take to build the Mackenzie Delta natural gas pipeline.

But the same hopes are at work in Fort Providence and its bridge as in any of the communities that stand to benefit from planned megaprojects. Hopes not only for higher incomes, but for new skills that will allow the band members to be more than just menial labourers. "We're pushing training, and trying to get more than just ditch diggers and cooks," Mr. Vandell says.

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