‘Normality is a Paved Road’: Canada’s New Arctic Highway and What’s Next


This week saw the long-awaited opening of the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway (ITH) in the Northwest Territories, a permanent road linking the two Arctic towns and providing many new potential economic opportunities for the region. As Tuktoyaktuk lies on the coast of the Beaufort Sea region of the Arctic Ocean, the completion of the road marks the first time the town can be reached by land on a year-round basis as opposed to formerly relying on temporary ice roads in the winter months and air travel at other times.

The roadway project, which cost approximately C$300 million (US$233 million), with the Canadian government providing C$200 million and the remainder being underwritten by the NWT, took four years to finish and required the construction of approximately 140 kilometres of roads along, with eight bridges and 359 culverts. With this road linked to the Dempster and Klondike Highways in the Northwest Territories and Yukon, this means that for the first time, all three of Canada’s coastlines will be accessible by road, year round.

When the project was first announced, it was hailed as a necessary economic lifeline for the NWT and the entire Canadian North. Such a link had been proposed at least as far back as the late 1950s / early 1960s by the government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, at a time when Ottawa was seeking to improve economic development in the region and the first fossil fuel surveys of the Mackenzie Delta and Beaufort Sea regions had begun. Negotiations were also required between the federal and territorial governments and the Inuvialuit Land Administration (ILA), as approximately 71 kilometres of the roadway was to be constructed on indigenous Inuvialuit lands. As a recent commentary in Cryopolitics noted, the ITH is a distinct example of ‘bottom-up’ planning in light of the active participation in the project’s development of indigenous persons’ organisations, including the ILA.

However, the project took on greater urgency under the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who had made Arctic sovereignty a priority for his government in light of the melting ice cap, growing interest among non-Arctic states such as China in developing Arctic policies, and deteriorating relations between Canada and Russia over the 2014 Ukraine crises. It was under the Harper government that the ITH finally broke ground, but this government’s Arctic policy of ‘use it or lose it’ was still largely viewed as being more symbolic than effective.

Upon taking office in November 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised a shift on Northern policy away from an emphasis on sovereignty issues, (Mr Trudeau accused the Harper government of pursuing a ‘big sled, no dogs’ Arctic strategy during a September 2015 election debate), and towards a more multifaceted approach. This would include attempting to improve communications with Moscow and a stronger focus on regional economic development.

The Trudeau administration is currently compiling an updated Arctic Policy Framework, and a joint statement made this week by Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs and Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, outlined the requirement for the Framework to reflect the needs of Canada’s northern populations and called for public participation in crafting the document.

Nonetheless, critics have argued that Ottawa still lacks a coherent and effective Arctic development strategy, and that communication and transportation links between the Canadian north and the rest of the country still lacking, contributing to an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ thinking. This was notably the case as compared with other parts of the Arctic, such as the Nordic region, where north-south connections are much more developed. The situation was not helped by the July 2016 closure of Canada’s only Arctic deep-water port in Churchill, Manitoba.

On the road again? Outskirts of Yellowknife, NWT (Photo by M. Lanteigne)

Road construction was a complicated affair, largely limited to winter months so that there would be no damage to the delicate permafrost, which has been seen as at risk due to fewer sub-zero days in the region. Before resource and energy prices began to fall three years ago, the highway project was praised as a ‘road to resources’ for the territory, but with a moratorium on Arctic oil drilling and commodity prices remaining low, there remains the question of whether the new link will be a catalyst for further development.

As well, the maintenance of the highway will be further complicated by concerns about melting permafrost in the region as climate change continues. In addition to the economic benefits of the ITH, there will also be the opportunity for closer study of the permafrost conditions, as it was announced in an August 2017 progress report [pdf] that the NWT Department of Infrastructure and Northwest Territories Geological Survey, and Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo were conducting studies along the roadway about local ground temperatures and effects on watersheds.

The highway’s construction commenced at a time when there were high hopes that the project would pay for itself due to the estimated fifteen to twenty million barrels of oil to be found in the Mackenzie Delta region. Yet with petroleum prices remaining under US$50 per barrel along with the drilling ban, it remains to be seen exactly when oil development in the NWT will return to profitable and viable levels.

According to the NWT government, the ITH not only created jobs in the territory and in other parts of Canada during the construction phase, but the completed roadway would reduce and stabilise living costs by allowing for cheaper shipments of goods, improve regional access to public services, and assist with the development of other economic sectors, including tourism. The geographic isolation of NWT towns, including Tuktoyaktuk, has resulted in inflated food prices, ongoing complications in getting needed fuel and supplies into the area, and underemployment. The persistent problem of food prices in the Canadian North even prompted recent test flights of drone deliveries of food and supplies in the Moose Cree First Nation in northern Ontario.

The economic troubles of the Canadian North due to falling energy prices was recently illustrated by NWT Premier Bob McLeod’s warning of a ‘red alert’ in the territory partially due to lingering ‘colonialist’ attitudes. Thus, there will therefore be much attention paid in Canada and beyond to the effects of the roadway on the economic fortunes of the region as cars and trucks begin to use this northern link on a regular basis.