'How many lives are we going to lose?' asks N.W.T. MLA after fatal Highway 3 accident

·4 min read

An N.W.T. MLA has reiterated his call for cell phone coverage on Highway 3 between Behchokǫ̀ and Yellowknife following a fatal accident on New Year's Eve.

Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty, whose constituency includes Behchokǫ̀, said although there have been improvements to the highway over the years, it still needs cell phone service and signs for people to slow down when others stop on the side of the road.

"There's a lot of people on the highway," he said, "and we don't have much space for passing two vehicles at a time."

He said it's an issue he's raised in the N.W.T. legislature several times over the years. In October, just weeks before the New Years Eve accident, Lafferty said in a members' statement that the problem "requires government action now, or human lives will surely be lost."

"There's been so many accidents on the highway," he said to CBC.

"I certainly hope the government will act on it. I certainly hope we're not going to go through another tragic [accident] on the highway for them to talk about it some more."

Lafferty says he plans to raise the issue again when the legislative assembly reconvenes in February.

Walter Strong/CBC
Walter Strong/CBC

Chief Clifford Daniels of Behchokǫ̀ also said cell service on the highway "is very much needed." He said there's a lot of traffic on the highway, especially between December and March when trucks bring supplies to the Gahcho Kué Diamond Mine. he added that Behchokǫ̀ residents commute on a daily basis to Yellowknife.

"We're like a suburb," he said.

He said he's sent a letter to several officials with the government of the Northwest Territories, asking them to support the idea "because this type of incident [on New Year's Eve] has occurred in the past in other emergencies where, you know, that would really be helpful in situations like this, that the emergency response would be a lot sooner.

Close to home

The accident on New Year's Eve hit close to home to Lafferty, whose father was driving the vehicle with the victim.

Lafferty said his father was driving on the highway with his girlfriend, Joyce Washie, her brother Kelly, and an elder when they stopped on the side of the highway for a smoke and bathroom break.

Lafferty said his father told him Kelly Washie went out toward the back of the car when a semi truck drove by.

"And then, next thing you know, my dad was saying that looking back in the rearview mirror there, brake lights were flashing [from the] semi truck … [The driver] walked back to my dad's vehicle and that's when they found out that Kelly wasn't there in the back of the vehicle. He was struck by the semi."

Lafferty said no one could call an ambulance or the police because of the lack of cell phone coverage. However, he said there was a highway operator who happened to come by who used his satellite phone to call police in Behchokǫ̀ and Yellowknife.

Lafferty said it took almost an hour for an ambulance and police to arrive, but added that Washie died instantly when he was struck by the truck.

"There was no suffering," he said.

Not the first time

It wasn't the first Lafferty said he's heard of someone needing help on the highway and unable to make an emergency phone call.

About a decade ago, when Lafferty was the education minister, he said he came across a man who was throwing dust up in the air to get attention from passers-by because he couldn't move — the man had been in an accident.

"This guy was kind of buried in the back bush and nobody could see him," Lafferty said.

Lafferty says he happened to be in the area cutting down branches when he spotted the man's truck. He says he had his satellite phone with him and was able to call police for help.

"I guess you can say I saved his life," he said.

'Everybody' in Behchokǫ̀ knows Kelly'

Lafferty said that Kelly Washie was well known in the community and was always cheerful and smiling.

"Everybody in the community of Behchokǫ̀ knows Kelly. Everybody," he said. "He's very well known, very humble person, very helpful."

Submitted by Joyce Washie
Submitted by Joyce Washie

He said his father seems to be coping well with the traumatic incident.

"He takes it one day at a time," said Lafferty. "Same with [Kelly's] sister, Joyce. Because if you lose a person accidentally, it's much harder than a person that's been sick for a while. So she never thought that Kelly would be gone that day."