‘No hope’ in the Sahtu without Mackenzie Valley Highway

Residents of the Sahtu are feeling cut off from the rest of Canada and even the NWT, according to Todd McCauley, a special projects advisor working with the region’s Sahtu Secretariat Incorporated (SSI).

“It’s almost like there’s no hope,” he said from Norman Wells on May 16 — the same day SSI published a news release titled “Alone in Canada,” which outlined the many interrelated challenges people in the region are facing at the moment.

The Sahtu covers over 2,800,000 square kilometres in the centre of the NWT, and is the location of the communities of Tulita, Norman Wells, Fort Good Hope, Deline and Colville Lake, which together are home to about 2,600 people.

In the past, goods and services have been delivered to those communities by trucks along frozen ice roads in the winter, and barges traveling along the Mackenzie River in the summer, but times have changed.

As climate change continues to take hold in the North, winters have gotten warmer and shorter, hampering the creation of ice roads across the NWT, while the Mackenzie River has been experiencing lower water levels in the summer, which has made it difficult to deliver goods to the Sahtu by barge.

This year, McCauley and his colleagues at SSI are under the impression that there will be no barge service to their communities at all.

“That is our understanding,” he said.

If the barges don’t sail through the Sahtu this summer, there will only be two options in terms of getting crucial goods and services to the region’s communities: waiting until the ice roads are constructed in the fall, or carrying freight in on airplanes.

The first option is problematic for obvious reasons: people in the Sahtu can’t wait until the fall for the goods they need to live, nor can community governments wait for the supplies they need to advance crucial construction and infrastructure problems. The second option partially negates those problems, but is far from perfect itself, as bringing goods in by air is extremely expensive.

The ramifications of this method are clearly visible on the price tags in the region’s grocery stores, where basic goods cost far more than they do in other parts of Canada, but it’s not just food that gets more expensive when it arrives by plane. The cost of fuel spikes too, making it difficult to effectively heat homes, fill gas tanks, and run diesel plants.

A reduced fuel supply also makes it more expensive and altogether more difficult to bring planes to and from the region, exacerbating the very problem the planes are intended to solve.

“Hopefully things go better with the winter road when the freeze happens again in the fall, but until then, everything that comes up is going to be delivered by plane,” he said.

The solution, according to McCauley, SSI, and many other people across the Sahtu, is the long-discussed construction of the Mackenzie Valley Highway.

“[We need people to] support the Mackenzie Valley Highway,” said McCauley.

The proposed two-lane gravel highway would be useable year-round, in all weather, and stretch from Inuvik to Wrigley — right across the Sahtu.

SSI has been calling for the highway’s construction for decades, and did so again as recently as last month, when it was framed as a priority for Canada’s national defence and Arctic sovereignty.

However, it is estimated the highway will cost roughly $1 billion and take many years to create.

The highway’s environmental impact is currently being assessed, but that assessment isn’t expected to be completed until 2025, according to McCauley. If everything goes off without a hitch, the GNWT will then need to figure out how to pay for the road — likely with ample Federal support — at which point construction could finally begin.

McCauley sees no way of speeding up the process, outside of expediting the construction phase.

“I don’t know any politician who would want to hang their hat on trying to speed up the review process,” he said. “It goes back to the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act that every land claim has agreed to. To try and expedite things, I don’t know if that would be the right approach.

“What could be increased though is the construction timeline of the GNWT,” he added. “They said it would be a 10-year project over [up to] 20 years. There should be a way to improve on that.”

One way or the other, anybody advocating for the construction of the Mackenzie Valley Highway has some waiting to do.

In the meantime, McCauley said one of his priorities is raising awareness about the importance of the all-season roadway.

In his mind, many people across Canada and even across the NWT fail to grasp the gravity of the situation in the Sahtu — a situation that might only be rectifiable by the creation of the highway.

“I don’t believe they do understand,” he said. “We’re trying to get awareness out, and the justification to build a highway without the numbers.”

Tom Taylor, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, NWT News/North