Two federal announcements this week are expected to kick-start a long-awaited road into the heart of the Canadian Arctic that would lower grocery costs for northern families and unlock billions of dollars in mineral resources.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau pledged more than $50 million to cover preliminary studies and planning for an all-weather road from Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories to a deep-water port on Nunavut’s central Arctic coast.
“This will change the economy of Canada,” Wally Schumann, the N.W.T.’s minister of industry, tourism and investment, said Thursday.
A direct, all-weather connection to southern Canada’s highways — Nunavut’s first — would allow everything from fresh vegetables to construction materials to be shipped more cheaply and easily by trucks.
“It’s very important for our region,” said Stanley Anablak, head of the Kitikmeot Inuit Association, which has been lobbying for the port and northern road for years.
Anablak said many of the supplies his Nunavut communities need, including groceries, are flown in, which results in higher bills. Others are shipped from ports thousands of kilometres away on barges that arrive once a year.
“Once we get the road built, we’re hopeful that it will bring the costs down significantly for our communities.”
As climate change erodes the usefulness of ice roads, the new link would open what’s known as the Slave Geological Province, one of the most mineral-rich parts of the country. A N.W.T. study suggests the area holds $45 billion worth of resources.
A 2016 study found costs for mining projects are up to 170 per cent higher in the N.W.T. than in southern Canada. The N.W.T. and Nunavut Chamber of Mines suggest exploration costs are six times higher.
The road would also help hydro development in the N.W.T., providing cheaper, more environmentally friendly power to both mines and communities.
“Those opportunities are lying there untouched because we don’t have the infrastructure,” said Schumann.
The money announced this week came in two bundles. Nunavut was awarded $21.7 million for the port and its part of the road and the N.W.T. got $30 million.
“The government of Canada … will look for ways to improve the flow of supplies to northern communities and support economic opportunities and social development in Canada’s three territories,” a spokesman for Garneau wrote in an email.
The total cost of the road and port is estimated at about $1 billion.
The final road would run nearly 700 kilometres of gravel through some of the most remote and untouched country left in North America. It would cut through the migration route of the Bathurst caribou herd, which is currently struggling to survive.
Part of the cash will pay for environmental studies, said Anablak.
“We can manage the risk and do it in a way that ensures there’s no harm to caribou.”
Schumann said Indigenous governments will be involved throughout and may end up owning or operating the road. He said it could take up to four years before bulldozers hit the tundra.
Northerners have been lobbying for the road since the 1960s, he said.
“This goes all the way back to (former prime minister John) Diefenbaker. That’s how long this thing’s been on the table.”