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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 ...

This is part of The North, a Globe investigation of unprecedented change to the climate, culture and politics of Canada’s last frontier. Join the conversation with #GlobeNorth

William Dillon Jr. is serious about his job. When visitors approach the construction taking place on the new $300-million all-weather road near the Arctic hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, he scoots up through the crisp cold on his all-terrain vehicle to meticulously take names and photos.

Mr. Dillon is an environmental monitor for the Inuvialuit Regional Corp., the agency in charge of improving the economic well-being of the aboriginal people whose land the highway crosses as it winds its way toward Inuvik, 140 kilometres south. Mr. Dillon, who grew up north of here on the coast of the Arctic Ocean, understands the economic implications of the ambitious project, and also the risks.

When completed in four years, the gravel roadway will for the first time connect Tuktoyaktuk, today a collection of mostly modest wood-frame homes that hug the coast, to the rest of Canada year-round. It is a link that many northerners have long urged. They predict it will foster a new era of economic growth and prosperity following a number of false starts for resource developments over the decades, and it may one day become the northern section of a $1.7-billion route along the Mackenzie River valley.

Energy plans for the north include shale oil near Norman Wells, NWT, in the central Mackenzie Valley, a potentially huge reserve where companies have started to drill, and – most important for the road – a return to the Arctic offshore to try to tap some of the country’s most abundant and hardest-to-recover oil and gas. To date, the tough tasks of moving equipment and workers over winter ice roads and by air, and setting up long-term work sites in remote locales, have meant exorbitant costs and long timelines to complete projects.

In the late 1950s, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker first sketched out a road to ease the way for Canada to reap benefits from its bounty of energy and minerals across a vast expanse of land and ocean. But the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway also promises new mobility for people like the Inuvialuit to take advantage of employment and business opportunities – if and when those multibillion-dollar projects get under way.

On Jan. 8, more than half a century after Mr. Diefenbaker talked of a “road to resources,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper travelled to Inuvik to inaugurate the construction. Today, the thoroughfare across a fragile tundra fits into his aims to secure Canada’s Arctic sovereignty as an international race for resources heats up. Ottawa has kicked in a third of the construction cost, and the government of the Northwest Territories is paying the rest.

Mr. Dillon is wary, though. After putting one more visitor through the paces of getting his I.D. and showing off his pair of huge black wolf mitts as the sun hung just above the horizon on a clear November morning, he talks of the highway as a double-edged sword – a boon for industries looking to extract resources and a potential route for a greater influx of crime and other social ills.

He worries about companies creating excitement and then leaving when the market shifts, as was the case in the Mackenzie Delta region with energy exploration in the 1970s and, more recently, the Mackenzie gas project that is now in limbo as it faces rising costs and uncertain markets.

“They train us, and then they disappear. They come back again with another idea, creating work, and then they start to train us again. That tapers off. The money runs out and then they disappear again,” Mr. Dillon, 55, said. “Boom and bust, boom and bust, every year.”

But government officials and aboriginal leaders say it’s different this time. With Ottawa’s move to pass more legislative power to the territorial government under a process called devolution, the two-lane gravel road atop the permafrost represents the beginning of a new era of development and jobs where they are sorely needed.

“The fact remains there’s a lot of gas both onshore and offshore and the oil potential in the offshore is tremendous. It could rival the Gulf of Mexico,” said Dave Ramsay, the territory’s Minister of Industry, Tourism and Investment. “We have the resources, and having this road constructed – it’s much more than just a highway.”


A sea change for Tuktoyaktuk

In Tuktoyaktuk, a hamlet of about 900 people on the northern shore of the Canada’s mainland, locals hope to establish the only deep-water port in the Western Arctic as global warming makes commercial navigation through the Northwest Passage a more regular phenomenon. In September, a 225-metre, ice-strengthened ship loaded with B.C. coal bound for Finland became the first bulk carrier to voyage through the storied route, showing how sea conditions have changed.

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