Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in the Northwest Territories yesterday, visiting Inuvik, where he touted ongoing work to complete a highway linking Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk.
The 140-km gravel highway will be the very first all-weather road linking Canada’s south to the Arctic coast, fulfilling a dream since the 1960s. From Inuvik, the new highway will connect to the Dempster Highway in the Yukon, then to the Klondike Highway and eventually the Alaska Highway, which despite its name actually connects south to British Columbia.
The $300-million new road, of which two-thirds is being paid for by the federal government, should be complete by 2017, and will immediately reduce shipping costs to Tuktoyaktuk by $1.5 million a year. It’s also expected to provide a $2.7-million annual boost to tourism.
That’s not to mention the human benefits that will come from better access to health care, education and jobs.
And of course, resource companies in the area are expected to reap huge benefits.
Not content with one link to the south, the Northwest Territories are also eying a second major highway project — an 800-km, $1.7-billion route along the Mackenzie River valley that would connect Inuvik to the tiny community of Wrigley, N.W.T., currently the northern terminus of a highway coming up from northern Alberta.
Harper’s presence in Inuvik shows that the federal government is serious about such northern development.
Now, it’s time for Manitoba to get serious, too.
Currently, if you want to drive north in Manitoba, you can take Highway 6 all the way to Thompson. From there, you can take Provincial Road 280 to the town of Gillam. From near there, Provincial Road 290 will take you the 25 km or so to the literal end of the road just past the abandoned settlement of Sundance.
Technically, you could end up a little further north if you took Provincial Road 394 west from Lynn Lake, but that dead-ends at Reindeer Lake just across the border in Saskatchewan, and there’s not much north of there.
On the other hand, if you wanted to drive a little further north from Sundance, you would have a very obvious destination in mind —the northern city of Churchill, which would be another 270 km or so.
Currently, visitors to Churchill have to either fly or take the train (which, from Winnipeg loops all the way over to Saskatchewan first).
As home to Canada’s only Arctic port, Churchill’s fortunes may be poised to take off thanks to climate change. Sure, until today, the winter has been bitterly cold, but that doesn’t disprove the overall fact that the Earth is warming, and one of the areas it’s warming fastest is in the North.
While we deplore the continuing carbon pollution that is responsible for the changing climate, the realpolitik of the situation demands that we take advantage as best we can.
Harper understands that if Canada misses this opportunity to nail down Canadian jurisdiction of the High North, we will lose it to other countries that border the Arctic.
Manitoba can play a valuable role in this strategic jostling by making a permanent road connection to Churchill a priority.
Former Brandon-Souris MP Merv Tweed has bet his future on the port, signing on with the rail company Omnitrax, which plans to ship oil out through Hudson’s Bay, despite numerous concerns and opposition from the province. A recent provincial report said, however, that a pipeline to the port should be built. We think a road connection should be part of the conversation also.
Tweed’s former colleague in the House of Commons, Vic Toews, has also come out in favour of road-building to Churchill. Last spring, Toews said that a road should be built from Churchill all the way to Rankin Inlet, in Nunavut. It would be the first major connection to that territory, and a huge boost not just to Canada and the North, but to Manitoba and to Churchill — to say nothing of continuing efforts to promote CentrePort in Winnipeg.
Meanwhile, the province remains focused on a network of all-weather roads along the east side of Lake Winnipeg. While important to the communities in the area, we urge the provincial government to look a little further north as well.