Life in Tuktoyaktuk used to revolve around the ice road, which saw its last season this past spring.

Inuvik-Tuk Highway project director Kevin McLeod points to a new gravel pit along the road for the new highway at a press conference in 2016.
Sarah Ladik/NNSL photo

“You were always waiting for it to open so you could get your vital supplies into the community,” remembers Inuvik mayor Jim McDonald, who lived eight years in Tuk during the 1980s.

“People were always waiting for construction materials back in the ‘80s when Tuk was a very busy place with all of the exploration that was happening in the region.”

There was always the opposite urgency at the end of the season for companies and people to get their goods up before the road became unsafe to drive. Once it closed, the only way to get supplies to Tuk was by air or barge, the latter of which usually opened in late June.

The ice road used to serve the oil industry, which was busy exploring and drilling in the delta.

Though the road is remembered fondly, it always had rough sections, particularly closer to Tuk where the ocean currents could impact the ice.

“If you had a strong wind blowing from the west, it would force the water up and push the ice into the bay, creating the pressure ridges,” said McDonald. “That always created problems and at times opened up cracks in the road.”

Duane Smith, president of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, remembers the ice road as the link between relatives and friends in the community who would visit each other for spring jamborees and other events.

He remembers one such trip to Tuk as a child that came with some added drama.

“We spun out and had a one-vehicle accident,” said Smith. “The Ski-Doo went flying out of the back and by the time we were able to get back out, everybody was okay and we threw the Ski-Doo back in the truck and kept going because (my uncle) wanted to get in the 50-and-over Ski-Doo races.”

A near disaster one Christmas in the ‘80s stands out for McDonald.

He came to Inuvik a day before Christmas to pick up the last bit of groceries and a few presents, but a storm was coming up.

“I thought I could beat the storm back but got caught in the storm about halfway to Tuk,” said McDonald.

“We spent about six to seven hours shoveling, trying to get through to Tuk and eventually I decided that we weren’t going to make it. We completely lost our direction in the storm with the wind and the blowing snow. I had thought we were turned around and headed back to Inuvik. As the storm started to lift and the conditions cleared, I realized we were still travelling in the direction of Tuk, so I was quite happy that night. I got home for Christmas.”


No longer The Road to Resources

Tuktoyaktuk mayor Darrel Nasogaluak says the community has been looking forward to the new highway for a long time.

“When we got the approval for funding, it seemed like such a far-off time to wait for four years, but we’ve come a long way,” he said. “Every day, a lot of people are actually counting (the opening) down.”

It will make a big difference in tourism, he said.

“Thousands of tourists (have reached) Inuvik over the years, but only so many of them fly up to Tuk,” said Nasogaluak. “Now with the opening of the highway, there are a lot of people going to drive down the Dempster just to get to the Arctic Ocean.”

To that end, Tuktoyaktuk will have weekly activities for tourists this summer. But tourism wasn’t the main draw when the Harper government pursued the new road.

“It will bring some opportunities but I think the whole purpose of the highway is being lost when the Liberal government put a ban on offshore oil development or exploration,” said Nasogaluak. “The highway was called The Road to Resources, but they’ve taken that away from us.”

He said he supports Premier Bob McLeod taking the issue to Ottawa.

It’s frustrating for McDonald too.

“I certainly disagreed with the prime minister’s decision and even more so how he made that decision unilaterally without any consultation with anyone in the North,” he said. “That’s very concerning.”

He said the government wants to study the industry and its impacts in the North, but companies have already been doing that for 40 or 50 years.

“(They) developed a huge amount of technology and experience at drilling in the Beaufort,” said McDonald. “To say that they need to study it all again when I think we’ve actually been through all of that already is very frustrating.”

The issue speaks to misconceptions or ignorance about the North.

“I think at times people in southern Canada don’t realize there are people up here, people with aspirations and wanting to see the North thrive and be developed,” said McDonald. “I don’t think they always realize that. I think they feel the North is just a land of snow and ice and there’s no one really up here. But it couldn’t be further from the case. We are relatively small population-wise, but there are people here and people that will always be here and we need the right to set our own destiny.”

He says the North’s resources can be developed in a sustainable and environmentally-responsible manner, and people in the North are capable of doing that themselves.

“We need a thriving economy to build our territory,” said McDonald. “I think everyone realizes that. It’s just how we go about that and what the development should be. It just seems that everyone else wants to be our protector.”

However, Smith isn’t as concerned about the moratorium.

“The industry that have exploration permits at this time are still allowed to conduct their exploration – they’re just not doing it,” said Smith.

The highway is still providing opportunity to access resources on the land, of which the IRC is determining the economic feasibility.

He said the moratorium is regrettable but the price of oil and gas around the world doesn’t make it economical for companies to explore in the region right now anyway.

For Smith, the highway is a statement of nation-building.

“These are the types of investments that are needed throughout the remote parts of Canada, where it’s supported, to stimulate the economy, create jobs, employment, develop wealth for the nation as well as the people that reside around those resources,” said Smith.

“It’s like when Canada was building the railway to British Columbia. This road is just another example of opening up a region for better access to potential opportunities.”

He hopes the GNWT takes this as a sign to look to the region for more employment, especially as work on the mega-project finishes.

“We’re very under-utilized when it comes to employment and trading opportunities on resources within the territory,” said Smith.

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