Op-Ed – Northern Infrastructure
At the Civic Auditorium in Winnipeg on February 12, 1958, my hero, then Prime Minister John Diefenbaker spoke of his vision for Canada’s Arctic. “We intend to carry out the legislative programme of Arctic research, to develop Arctic routes, to develop those vast hidden resources the last few years have revealed…Plans to increase self-government in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. We can see one or two provinces there.”
However, Diefenbaker’s vision for developing Arctic routes to develop the ‘…vast hidden resources..’ of the Arctic is still yet to be realized, although it was another Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper who approved the soon to be completed construction of the last leg of Diefenbaker’s Dempster Highway, the link from the MacKenzie Delta in Inuvik to the Beaufort Sea at Tuktoyaktuk.
But infrastructure in the north is still severely lacking. In Nunavut, there are 25 fly-in only communities with no roads linking any communities in Nunavut, and no road link to southern Canada. Nunavut is composed of 25 coastal communities and not one has a port able to accommodate the deep draft sealift vessels that are vital for resupply. Nunavut relies solely on diesel to power its communities, despite being in a territory with rich hydro potential.
During a recent exchange in Senate Question Period with Infrastructure Minister Sohi, I asked whether the bb bv infrastructure needs of remote regions of Canada will be considered in addition to transit in major cities. I was pleased to hear the Minister say, in response, that he is committed “…to supporting northern communities in their very diverse needs for road infrastructure, for making sure that we are untapping the potential in the North for resource development…”
One particular nation-building project in this category is the Grays Bay Port and Road in the western Nunavut region known as the Kitikmeot. This would ultimately be the first road linking the Canadian highway and rail system to tide water in Nunavut.
The all weather Gray’s Bay Road and Port will allow a rich zinc-copper deposit at Izok Lake and High Lake in Nunavut to be become feasible and accessible, the first of many promising mining prospects, and could also serve as an alternative north to south access route to three diamond mines in the Northwest Territories which are at present resupplied annually by a winter ice road from Yellowknife, which is threatened by climate change.
The premiers of both territories and the Canada Transportation Act Review Report tabled by Minister Garneau on May 10, 2016 support the Gray’s Bay project, which will realize Diefenbaker’s vision of accessing a corridor rich in mineral potential.
The Grays Bay project also is a prime example of Aboriginal partnership: since the Inuit owned Nunavut Resources Corporation, partnered with the Government of Nunavut, would build and own the road and port, collecting long term lease payments from the mining company and other users. The Inuit would also be entitled to share in mining royalties from the project, a term of their 1993 land claims agreement.
This deep water port could also serve the Royal Canadian Navy and Coast Guard as a refueling location, as well as a safe landing area for storage and resupply needs in the region.
With roads also come vital links to services. Fibre optic cables could be laid at the same time as road is being built, bringing increased access to broadband for northern residents and researchers at the High Arctic Research station.
Between Nunavut, Northwest Territories and Yukon, the area north of 60° latitude comprises 40% of the land mass of Canada. Projects such as the Gray’s Bay Road and Port would bring wealth and GDP growth to Canada, particularly Edmonton and Yellowknife, gateways to the region as well as sorely needed employment to a region with a growing population where high operating costs and lack of infrastructure to date have posed major barriers to investment and private development.
Most important, infrastructure investment in Canada’s Arctic will reinforce Canadian sovereignty as Russia and other circumpolar countries invest heavily and extensively in their Arctic. When the CPR, the Trans Canada highway and federal ports were being built in southern Canada, the Arctic – 40 per cent of Canada’s land mass and its longest coast – was overlooked because of our small population and sparse political representation. Now is the time to ensure that Canada’s biggest infrastructure program finally allows all Canada to access and benefit from those vast and hitherto hidden resources in John Diefenbaker’s vision – from a region which is poised and willing to contribute to Canada’s growth in partnership with its original Inuit inhabitants.