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The bridge to the future Add to ...

The first bridge over the Mackenzie River will span more than just a kilometre of fast-flowing water.

For centuries, there have been only three ways to cross the Mackenzie: by boat, across ice, or not at all. In warm weather, ferries run across the river, which splits the Northwest Territories in half from Great Slave Lake in the south all the way to the Arctic Ocean. In the depths of winter, traffic rolls across the river on a makeshift ice road.

But when the thick ice breaks up and the road melts in the early spring, much of the Northwest Territories is cut off. Breakup leaves Yellowknife and a host of smaller communities dependent on supplies that are flown in.

The price of lettuce, milk -- anything that comes from the south -- soars in those weeks until the ferries can navigate the Mackenzie.

For the 800 inhabitants of tiny Fort Providence on the north bank of the Mackenzie, the $55-million project will not only create a physical link across the river to southern Canada. It will be a bridge to the modern economy. "This is the only chance we're going to get," says Michael Vandell, the 30-year-old spearheading plans for the bridge as president of Deh Cho Bridge Corp. Ltd.

With the economy of the Northwest Territories set to boom, propelled by mining and energy megaprojects, ferries, ice bridges and yearly isolation are about to become a piece of history, rather than geography.

Aboriginals are joining forces with petroleum companies on a $5-billion project to build a natural gas pipeline down the Mackenzie River valley, winding 1,300 kilometres from the Beaufort Sea to a terminal in northwestern Alberta. And the diamond sector is booming: Two mines, Ekati and Diavik, are operating northeast of Yellowknife, and a third is expected to be in production by 2006. Over the next two to three decades, the three mines are projected to generate $25.7-billion in gross domestic product.

The bridge over the Mackenzie is one small part of the much-hoped-for transformation of the Northwest Territories from a virtual colony of the south into a self-supporting economy, with aboriginal communities at the forefront.

And with that transformation comes hope, however fragile. In Fort Providence, the spinoff benefits from the bridge project could save its people from the stark choice of forsaking their community or resigning themselves to a lifetime of unemployment. Elsewhere, energy and mining megaprojects bring the hope of better jobs, more money, and a sense of independence from southern political and corporate dominance. In Fort Liard to the south, hope shows itself in the willingness of a mother to abandon the comfort of her community, band and history to give her daughter a chance at a better life.

That is the promise of the new north. But there are perils, too. Aboriginals are struggling to balance the demands of development on their tight-knit societies, and on the fragile environment of the north. Incomes have started to rise, but crime is rising even faster.

And then there is the constant struggle to make sure that aboriginals will be full participants in the new economy -- more than just ditch diggers and cooks, in the words of Mr. Vandell.

The territory's political leaders are part of that struggle, as the government pushes for a fair share of resource revenues. Without a better deal with the federal government, the territory says it actually will lose nearly $200-million over 20 years even as billions in energy and mining royalties flow southward.

To spread that message, NWT Premier Stephen Kakfwi blitzed New York, Toronto and Ottawa this week, including a private lunch with the Prime Minister in Shawinigan. Mr. Kakfwi says the push for autonomy is about more than dollars.

"There's a matter of dignity involved here. None of us like the notion that we're living on the benevolence of Ottawa."

Many bridges have yet to be built.

Jobs are scarce in Fort Providence, a former Hudson's Bay Co. trading post that sits five kilometres off the highway leading to Yellowknife. A handful of businesses straddle the hamlet's main street, a dusty unpaved road. A small inn, along with a restaurant, bar and mechanic's shop, lie at one end, with a small general store a few hundred metres farther on. On the main highway on the way to the ferry, there is a gas bar and another café. And that's it for the private sector.

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