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Have road, will travel: Rural Nunavut hopes for a way out

Rankin Inlet's Mayor John Hickes and his wife, Page Burt, tend to their sled dogs. There are no roads in or out of the area around Rankin Inlet, leaving air travel as the only way to travel.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

He's known as the mushing mayor, and he wants nothing more for his town than more cars, more trucks and one big highway that locals hope will offer a passage to prosperity for the entire region.

As John Hickes's dogs strained against their harnesses, waiting for him to release the brakes, he couldn't help musing about the project everyone here simply refers to as "the road."

"The Prime Minister keeps telling Canadians that we have to use it or lose it when it comes to Arctic sovereignty," said Mr. Hickes, mayor of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut's second-largest community at 2,700 people. "The road is a sure way to use it."

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Rankin Inlet and surrounding communities in the Kivalliq region, the massive area of Nunavut west of Hudson Bay, are riding a mineral-driven economic boom constrained only by the absence of transportation links with the south. Like Nunavummiut in all 25 of the territory's communities, they have no option but an expensive airline ticket to visit the rest of Canada, and local industry must jam most of its shipping and receiving activity into the summer months when barges can navigate local waterways.

But the possibility of a long-awaited, 1,300-kilometre road - with a price tag of $1.3-billion - linking this area with northern Manitoba could change all that, transforming the nature of the territory's well-documented socioeconomic struggles in the process.

"You can't even fathom how much good this road would do," said Mr. Hickes.

Last November, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger and Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak signed a memorandum of understanding that agreed to study the feasibility of an all-weather road starting in Gillam, Man., and stretching as far as Baker Lake, Nunavut. The route would also branch into Churchill, a key regional port, and link several other isolated communities along the eastern shore - Arviat, Whale Cove and Rankin Inlet.

That area is currently riding an economic upsurge, with one big gold mine open for a year and another in the works. Exploration activity is so lively that Mr. Hickes's hotel, Nanuq Lodge, is booked solid.

A cost-benefit analysis now circulating among the governments of Manitoba and Nunavut attempts to quantify the financial benefits of a road link. Over three decades, the Nunavut economy would gain between $394-million and $413-million from the highway and attract up to three new mining developments, according to a copy of the report obtained by The Globe and Mail.

The report goes on to say that with an all-weather road, "Nunavut would likely lose its sense of isolation and become more fully integrated into the Canadian family of provinces and territories," while Inuit people would experience a "higher level of social and economic equity."

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But, as with any government project in the North, funding is scarce. Over 90 per cent of Nunavut's cash-strapped budget already comes from the federal government, and Manitoba isn't willing to shoulder the brunt of the costs.

"It's a huge project and Manitoba is not a huge province, so we would need help with it," said Manitoba government spokesperson Rachel Morgan. "We would want federal engagement on this initiative."

The two governments are preparing a strategic action plan for the road project that could attract just such attention from Ottawa.

The financial payoff for Manitoba appears minimal: $200,000 from passenger traffic and $27-million from increased employment in road construction and maintenance, according to the report, which doesn't factor in certain social benefits that would likely arise.

"Wherever this road goes we would hope to see a lower cost of living and the construction of a healthy society," said Luis Manzo, director of lands for the Kivalliq Inuit Association, which advocates for Inuit in the region.

Current plans also allow for a hydro right-of-way parallel to the highway, perhaps allowing northern hamlets to kill their expensive diesel generators and plug into a hydro grid for the first time.

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"It would be a great day to see," he said. "This would be a rare example of a big development project for Canada that doesn't exclude the North."

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About the Author
National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More

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