Hundreds of Northerners descended upon Fort Providence last Friday to be the first to walk across the Northwest Territories’ first permanent, year-round transportation link connecting the territory to southern Canada.
Tightly huddled in a frozen mass, residents, kids, politicians, military personnel, RCMP and media cheered as Premier Bob McLeod led the ribbon cutting and plaque unveiling before racing across the bridge, both to warm up and to see who could be the first to cross.
Despite temperatures below -30?C, attendees from every region of the territory came by plane, car and bus to witness the official opening of the $202-million Deh Cho Bridge, the largest capital project undertaken by the territorial government to date.
“It’s a great day for Fort Providence and it’s a great day for the Northwest Territories,” said Premier Bob McLeod. “I’m very proud to be home in Fort Providence for the opening of the Deh Cho Bridge. When I was growing up here, watching the river flow by, I never imagined I would see the day when we would have a bridge across the Mackenzie River. This is a major achievement.”
McLeod said the opening brought back memories of when the ice bridge was built by the hands of people of the Northwest Territories, the day when a truck fell through the rotting ice and his yearly springtime return from Grandin College in Fort Smith, when river water would come up to the bumpers of the bus as it crossed the Mackenzie.
The premier said the new piece of infrastructure provides a level of stability that will benefit the lives of residents and the economy.
“This bridge gives us a more reliable transportation system and will connect the North Slave permanently to the south, and some people will say we are finally connected to the rest of Canada,” he said. “It will also improve access to our rich resources and will allow us to move forward, to move our goods to market reliably and efficiently.”
Two commercial vehicles led the first convoy across the bridge, one by Dick Robinson, the founder of RTL Robinson Enterprises, who first crossed the Mackenzie in the late 1950s by winter road, and the other by Doc Brown, who has been trucking in northern Alberta and the NWT for more than 63 years.
“(Brown) has a long history with crossing the Mackenzie River and other rivers in the territory, and he crossed on the first wooden barge that crossed the river,” said Russ Neudorf, deputy minister of Transportation.
Following the community march across the bridge, a handful of people were invited aboard for the last crossing of the Merv Hardie ferry before everyone gathered back at Deh Gah School in Fort Providence for a feast and drum dance.
Thanks were given to previous ministers and premiers involved with the bridge project and remarks were made by Transportation Minister David Ramsay and local community and Aboriginal leaders.
“This day we had anticipated for so long,” said Tina Gargan, mayor of Fort Providence. “Our community took the first steps in starting discussion of building a bridge across our magnificent river – the Dehcho – over a decade ago, a dream many thought would not be realized. We truly can say that we have seen the project from start to finish.”
Construction on the 1-km bridge began in 2008. The structure has an expected design life of 75 years.
‘Broadband bridge’ connects Yellowknife to Edmonton
The territorial government wasn’t the only group celebrating completion of the Deh Cho Bridge last week.
Telecommunications company Northwestel lauded the bridge project for enabling the fortification of its $18 million fibre optic line, mounted underneath the bridge structure, which now connects Yellowknife to Edmonton, providing a more reliable internet source to Northern communities.
“Congratulations to everyone who made this project a reality,” Mark Walker, vice president of government and Aboriginal relations and business solutions at Northwestel, said in a press release.
“Residents, government and business partners can celebrate all of the improvements to quality of life that this bridge will mean, including better internet capacity.”
The new fibre extension, installed across the bridge last spring, is providing broadband internet capacity to customers in Yellowknife, Fort Providence, Behchoko and Dettah. Northwestel recently repositioned the lines to ensure no damage is incurred from ice during spring break-up on the Mackenzie River.
The fibre linkage provides more carrying capacity than previous microwave technology for applications requiring high bandwidth, such as video conferencing.