People were spilling out of the sides of the Donald Kuptana Sr. Memorial Arena in Tuktoyaktuk for a historic celebration of the opening of the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway on Wednesday, Nov. 15.
More than 700 community members, dignitaries and outside media came together, starting with a celebration in Inuvik followed by a ribbon-cutting at the start of the highway near Muskrat Road.
The highway spans 138 kilometres from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk and is expected to increase tourism in the Beaufort Delta by $2.7 million a year, creating up to 22 full time jobs for Northerners.
Citizens then took to the highway for the inaugural drive, winding their way up the curvy road and viewing Mackenzie Delta and Husky Lakes in all their glory, before arriving in Tuktoyaktuk, where the real party began.
Once entering the hall, partygoers immediately saw a giant mural spanning the entire arena, which was made by Tuktoyaktuk-born Joe Nasogaluak.
Fittingly, he made the mural out of the material that is below the gravel on the highway itself, painting it with the scenery from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk.
He had been on the phone talking about how great the road was that morning when his brother- and sister-in-law showed up unexpectedly.
“I said, this is what the road is all about,” said Nasogaluak. “I’m a really proud Inuvialuk, but I’m more proud to be from Tuk today.”
He hopes the road can become a gateway for future generations to resources in the sea.
“That’s an open door, a stepping stone for our kids to see if we can get access to work with the oil up here,” he said, adding that Northerners are resilient people even in economic downturns.
“We get by. We hunt, we live. We don’t need the oil company. We can still get by. It’s what we do. We find ways. If there’s no caribou, we get more geese and fish. But the oil companies, for the younger people, can maybe make (them) a living and start businesses.”
Governor General Julie Payette captivated the crowd, who came to complete silence as her entrance was announced and she walked through the line of Canadian Rangers and cadet members.
She called the name of the road fitting itself.
“Even the name – highway, way to the future and aiming high,” said Payette.
“A road constructed over difficult terrain, mostly at night, at frigid temperatures. Congratulations to the crew, to the engineers and to everyone who participated.”
Payette said it was fitting that the historic road was completed in Canada’s 150th year.
She has been to the Beaufort Delta before and called people of the North resilient survivors.
“More importantly, they have taught us, those who came after, a sense of community and importance of working together in order to make it through,” she said, adding that it’s time those not from the North listen to that message again.
Premier Bob McLeod was glad that the vision from the 1960s finally became a reality.
“This is an important day for the Northwest Territories and Canada,” he said. “Today marks the opening of the first highway to connect our nation by road from sea to sea to sea and creates a northern transportation corridor that makes access to the tidewater on the Arctic ocean a reality.”
He said the road is an example of Northerners making their voices heard in Ottawa.
Other speakers congratulated the builders and talked about the importance of such a nation-building project.
After prayers and speeches, host Peter Clarkson wasn’t embellishing when he encouraged partygoers to step outside for the “best fireworks show” Tuk has ever seen.
Tuktoyaktuk drummers and dancers then wowed the crowd with a polished routine, including some dynamic sliding between legs and perfectly synchronized movements.
Finally, Collectif9, which was brought to Tuktoyaktuk by the Northern Arts and Culture Centre, serenaded the crowd while the feast began.
Beyond the proclamations and performances, the event was a chance for family members to connect and share in a historic moment that will make future connections no doubt easier.