A tale of two roads, and two distinct futures

A tale of two roads, and two distinct futures

The duties and priorities of the Northern governments are basically to caretake the land and encourage - but control - the context of resource development while optimizing the quality of life for residents. Hopefully while they are doing all that, if they are good, they can take measures to keep down the cost of living.

The great challenge in developing Northern Canada, magnified as it is by vast distances, is the high cost of infrastructure which includes airports, roads, power grids, facilities and buildings of all kinds. There are generally two kinds of infrastructure in the North; that which services people and makes up or connects communities and the support systems for industry. Sometimes the two combine, but they can also be at odds.

When the economy is doing well, governments are flush with cash and communities get roads, schools and hospitals. When the economy slows and times become tough, hospitals and schools are still needed, but the size of the hospital may be downgraded or that sought-after gymnasium may be cut. Instead, the priority becomes support for industry. We are in the second scenario. The economy is heading rapidly into a down cycle characterized by losses by businesses, and soon, tight government money and job cuts.

The government of the Northwest Territories has two massive infrastructure projects on the books. The Mackenzie Valley Highway has long been the priority – to connect communities from Fort Simpson to Inuvik bringing new opportunities to them while lowering their cost of living. The other massive project, also with a price tag of tens of millions of dollars, is running an all-weather road northeast of Yellowknife into the Slave Geologic Province, eventually connecting to the Arctic coast. That one has long been a dream of the mining industry.

In the last decade we have enjoyed a strong national and territorial economy. With money flowing and especially given the discovery of extensive oil reserves in the Sahtu, the Mackenzie Valley Highway has been the unchallenged priority. The plan to invest in enhancing the winter road to the mines – that one made famous by Ice Road Truckers – has had no traction. The recent has downturn changed all that.

The talk now in government is that the newly-minted resource revenue sharing deal with the federal government is not doing the NWT government any good if there are no resource projects generating revenue. The best way to turn that around is to build a year-round road to the mines.

It is said an all-weather road northeast of Yellowknife would extend the life of the diamond mines by as much as a decade. It would also bring access to new deposits of other kinds of ore. Year-round access dramatically reduces the cost of operating a mine, which means marginal finds, even in this time of low demand, could become feasible. For a government staring at a dwindling bank account, that is compelling.

The NWT Chamber of Commerce would love to have both roads, but has historically said the extension of the Mackenzie Highway to strengthen community economies is the priority. The Chamber of Mines on the other hand lobbies routinely for a new road northeast of Yellowknife that would eventually connect to a port on the Arctic coast, allowing ore to be shipped to markets through the Northwest Passage. The territorial government position has swung to and fro like a pendulum. Right now it is heading rapidly fro.

Thanks to the crash in the price of oil and subsequent economic downturn, the two options have quickly switched places. The voices of Mackenzie Valley MLAs promoting access to their communities has been muted by the motivation to encourage new mines and new revenue.

Sorry people of the Mackenzie Valley, the priority is now the faltering economy and you are just going to have to be patient for a decade or two longer. Sorry dwindling caribou herds that will feel further pressure from a year-round road and constant traffic crossing your migration route. The creation of wealth and jobs is the imperative.

The NWT government must now find willing industry partners and federal support to pay for that road to the mines. If and when a road is built, the vast central heartland of Canada’s North will be open for development, mines will spin up and government coffers will gradually become full again. That could take a while.

Demand for resources worldwide, or the lack thereof, is what is dictating all that, something Northern residents have no control over. We are caught in the sway of developing economies like those of China and India, which dictates what roads are built in the NWT. Like it or not, much of our future direction is determined by that. We just have to figure out how to make the most of it.

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