The COVID-19 pandemic may be delaying deliveries across Canada, but it's not stopping four new barges from travelling from China to Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., this summer.
Marine Transportation Services (MTS) is expecting the new fleet this August, arriving on a heavy-lift ship from Shanghai.
Steve Hagerman, the director of MTS, the N.W.T. government-owned barge company, said the cross-continental delivery would've been noteworthy, even if the country wasn't already in the midst of a pandemic.
"That's going to be a one-of-[a-kind] for sure. I don't believe that this will be repeated again," said Hagerman.
Barges bring critical fuel and other dry goods to Arctic coastal and Mackenzie River communities every summer in both the N.W.T. and Nunavut.
Hagermen said these four barges from China Merchants Jinling Shipyard are part of a new series that are made specifically to handle large volumes of fuel products. With the increased capacity, it will allow MTS to decrease the number of deliveries into some communities.
An Infrastructure spokesperson said the total budget to design, build and deliver the four barges is $20.7 million; the federal government paid for 75 per cent, and the territorial government covered the other 25 per cent.
Hagerman said, so far, organizing the delivery has been going better than he anticipated — despite the shipyard in China shutting down "for well over a month" since the height of the pandemic in March.
"We were really concerned, of course, that we wouldn't be able to get the barges at all this year," he said. "I don't know how they did it, but they fast-tracked and put us right back on schedule."
With the ships coming in during the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be restrictions in place, said an Infrastructure spokesperson in an email Tuesday.
Interactions between crew and residents are already restricted for regular community cargo deliveries, with designated drop-off zones.
"For the delivery of the barges from China, the barges will be unloaded by another vessel between 30 and 60 kilometres offshore, depending on weather. There will be no physical interactions or contact between vessels or vessel crews," the email said.
The crew from China will not leave their vessel, with communication between crews only by radio. The email said MTS staff who are physically involved with attaching the new barges have gone through 14 days of self-isolation, as have the Chinese crew members.
Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson said the new barges are going to be a big deal for his riding and other Arctic coastal communities.
"It just reassures, having new barges in place that are able to carry as much fuel as we need for these communities. Instead of doing two trips a year, they are able to do it all in one," said Jacobson.
"I'm looking forward to making sure that all my coastal communities are being serviced and I think this is a big step for our government working with the coastal communities."
"We haven't seen any big boats since last year, so it will be good to see," said Jacobson.
Hagerman, with MTS, said the heavy-lift ship is slated to head overseas with the barges on July 28.
It should arrive about 14 days later, depending on the weather.
Hagerman said the new vessels won't be replacing any current barges, and although these vessels are generally used on the ocean, they can also be used on rivers.