Prime Minister Stephen Harper kicked off what was certainly his shortest visit to the North in Hay River last Friday, where he promised - if re-elected - to finance the hard surfacing of Highway 5 running through Wood Buffalo National Park into Fort Smith.
Investments like this make life easier and safe both for the folks who live here and for tourists.
At a gathering hosted by Rowe’s Construction on Aug. 14, Harper announced a Conservative government would allocate $14 million toward chip-sealing the 64-km gravel length of the road, as well as widening portions of the highway and replacing drainage culverts where necessary.
“I know this will obviously please Fort Smith’s mayor,” Harper said. “I can tell you that I heard from Brad (Brake) how important the upgrade to Highway 5 is for this region. Friends, investments like this make life easier and safe both for the folks who live here and for tourists. It will be a better road and – this is important – our government will pay 100 per cent of the costs.”
The most recent campaign promise falls in line with the Harper government’s ongoing Northern strategy. In the NWT, that agenda has included a $200-million contribution toward an all-weather road from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk and a $72-million contribution to upgrading all highways of the NWT, except Highway 5.
The territory has been working to get the gravel section of the road paved for decades. Parks Canada, local municipalities and the territorial and federal governments have long debated whose jurisdiction the project belongs to.
According to the NWT department of Transportation, the highway no longer meets the standards for traffic speed and volume, and requires a full reconstruction. Officials with the department recently told the Journal that chip-sealing would be a “band-aid fix,” noting full paving of the road would cost upwards of $20 million.
Good news: MLA, mayors
Thebacha MLA Michael Miltenberger, who recently expressed his “extreme disappointment” that Highway 5 was snubbed during Ottawa’s recent funding announcement, called the promise “good news for the community” of Fort Smith.
“Thanks to the Conservatives for setting that high bar. It’s a very good political promise, during the election, to set the bar now, and my expectation would be to see the Liberals and NDP make similar commitments – or better,” he said.
“It’s a big, unfinished piece of business for Fort Smith – a federal piece of business – so I thank Mr. Harper, the Conservatives and, of course, Floyd Roland, the candidate, for making that commitment. I think all the constituents of Thebacha would like to see similar commitments from the other two parties.”
In his closing statement, Hay River Mayor Andrew Cassidy expressed appreciation for the funding and reminded the crowd of about 200 invited guests that the investment would come in especially handy in the near future.
“In 2018, the communities of Fort Smith and Hay River will be co-hosts to the Arctic Winter Games, a celebration of Northern athleticism and culture. They will be returning to the South Slave after 40-year hiatus,” he said.
Fort Smith Mayor Brake was extremely pleased with the promise, himself a persistent advocate for the infrastructure upgrade.
“It’s something I’ve been working on since I got elected in 2012. I’m very pleased to see that they’ve come forward and said they’re going to pave the entire section,” Brake said.
But other leadership in Fort Smith questioned the campaign promise, like Fort Smith Métis Council president Ken Hudson, who called the announcement “real bullshit.”
“They had eight years that highway was waiting to be done, and all of a sudden an election’s come around and he’s promising a road,” he said.
Hudson also questioned Brake’s presence at what he considered a partisan event.
“Is it right for our mayor to be there on behalf of our community supporting one party?” he asked.
Brake said he has not publicly endorsed any one party and has no plans to do so. Like Miltenberger, he welcomed the announcement as an election promise.
“I think what’ll happen is other parties will come in mind with that statement and I’m hopeful we will see it happen,” Brake said. “I personally will be lobbying for it with all parties and saying this is what we need to have happen, it’s a priority here, so make it your priority as well.”
Opposition unimpressed with ‘late’ promises
Both other territorial candidates, incumbent MP Dennis Bevington (NDP) and Liberal candidate Michael McLeod, said they were unimpressed by Harper’s announcement, saying it comes too late and doesn’t go far enough.
“If you check the Slave River Journal records, we had a front-page picture with all of us signing an agreement to do the chip-sealing of the whole highway in 2007,” Bevington said. “It was good to see that this government, at this late date, has recognized their commitment.”
Bevington said funding for the highway is set to come out of the $300-million Parks Canada Infrastructure Improvement program regardless, including if the NDP are elected.
“I think any government that’s elected after Oct. 19 will be looking at how to put those funds to good use, and certainly I’ll be advocating that that money go into the Fort Smith highway,” he said.
McLeod pointed out that much of the NWT’s transportation infrastructure was developed in the 1960s. If elected, he said he would push for greater infrastructure investment in the territory. Topping his list of priorities are dredging the Hay River harbour and refurbishing the Hay River Port, building an all-weather road to Whati and completing the Mackenzie Valley Highway.
“I’m very disappointed with Mr. Harper’s announcement today regarding the NWT infrastructure,” McLeod said. “Although the additional funding from the federal government is welcome, this announcement does not go far enough. Once again we see Mr. Harper and the Conservatives holding critical, crucial resources from the North until it suits them. Northerners deserve vision and leadership, not a last-minute funding announcement.”