From sea to shivering sea: Mackenzie Valley Highway furthers ‘Canadian sovereignty in the North’

From sea to shivering sea: Mackenzie Valley Highway furthers ‘Canadian sovereignty in the North’

In the 1880s, Canada helped establish its sovereignty over 5,000 kilometers of land by building the Canadian Pacific Railroad.

Its construction enabled transportation from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the settlement of new cities and towns, a unified economy, and brought to life Canada’s motto “From Sea to Sea”.

Almost 130 years later, the governments of Canada and the Northwest Territories are picking up where the railroad left off with construction of the Mackenzie Valley Highway. When fully completed, it will be the first road connecting Canadian public highways to the Arctic Ocean.

“There are many driving factors, including the further assertion of Canadian sovereignty in the north and the connection of previously isolated communities to the national transportation network through a year-round access route,” Seth Bohnet, director of strategic infrastructure for the Northwest Territories, said in an interview.

“Most of these communities out there are isolated year-round and only accessible by air, water, or seasonal ice roads. This creates many challenges in terms of supplies, logistics, feelings of isolation and the cost of living is high.”

Other benefits include economic diversification, increased tourism, the potential for small business and encouraging further development and exploration of the natural resource-rich region, he said.

The vision for the Mackenzie Highway as a means of connecting Canada “coast to coast to coast” dates back about five decades, according to NWT’s business case for the project.

In 1977, construction of the highway at Wrigley, NWT, its northern terminus, was halted to date due to several factors including a 10-year moratorium on northern oil and gas exploration.

“The long-promised path to resources must go now,” it says in the case.

DEPARTMENT OF INFRASTRUCTURE/GOVERNMENT OF THE NORTHWEST TERRITORIES – The Government of the Northwest Territories has been undergoing an environmental impact assessment for the Wrigley to Norman Wells section of the Mackenzie Valley Highway for five years, but small sections related to community projects have been completed during that time.

The current portion of the Mackenzie Valley Highway project in progress is a $700 million, 321 km long gravel road stretching year-round from Wrigley north toward Norman Wells, NWT

Sections of the larger Mackenzie Valley Highway have already been built, such as the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway, opened in 2017, which became the first road ever to reach the Arctic Ocean coast and was an integral part of the long-term vision for the highway, Bohnet said.

But heading north, the public highways terminate at Wrigley, many hundreds of miles south of Inuvik. The project will undergo a full environmental impact assessment before work can begin on the Wrigley to Norman Wells section.

Norman Wells’ connection to Inuvik is many years away. This potential future section of the highway is currently undergoing an open-ended feasibility study, Bohnet said.

But the Northwest Territories government outlines full completion of the Mackenzie Valley Highway from Wrigley to Tuktoyaktuk as a goal in its 25-year Connecting Us transportation strategy.

Bohnet said the infrastructure team is entering the fifth year of the environmental review and is investing most of its time in social, economic and technical design planning to inform the review.

But there are boots on the floor.

DEPARTMENT OF INFRASTRUCTURE/GOVERNMENT OF NORTHWEST TERRITORIES – The Mackenzie Valley Highway from Wrigley to Norman Wells will be a two-lane, 200-mile all-season gravel road. Director of Strategic Infrastructure at the NWT Department of Infrastructure, Seth Bohnet, said gravel is much cheaper to maintain than pavement when coping with the northern climate.

“We have advanced some smaller projects along the alignment as community capacity building projects,” he said.

“These move forward outside of environmental assessment with their own project permits, regulatory approvals and community support. The intent is to prepare communities for the larger project when it comes.”

To date, the Canyon Creek access road has been completed, a 14 kilometer section immediately south of Norman Wells. In November, construction began on the access road to Prohibition Creek, also south of Norman Wells.

The Great Bear River Bridge adjacent to Tulita is in planning and design with regulatory applications expected to be submitted later this year.

Bohnet said building a gravel road was a product of cost considerations.

“To invest in paving, there are a lot more maintenance costs associated with upheaval and permafrost. It’s a lot harder to sustain over the long term,” he said.

The biggest issues associated with building such a long highway through relatively untouched land are mitigating the environmental impact and working with multiple levels of government and many remote communities.

“There is a great deal of engagement and collaboration that needs to take place with Indigenous governments and community organizations to ensure that we not only identify all potential impacts, but that we find ways to maximize benefits to them and minimize negative impacts .”

Minimizing environmental impact means strategically determining what time of year to build.

“Project implementation plans would include attempting to place as much base material during the winter season as to minimize permafrost degradation in the summer season,” he said.

“If you’re out in the open tundra and you’re working in an area that’s not currently frozen, you have a larger ecological footprint in the summer months.”

The logistics are also a challenge for the geographically isolated project.

“It ensures we have materials available locally and locally,” he said. “Usually there’s no other way to stage them than to get there either via the winter road or the river system.”

Bohnet said the project is at least two years away from regulatory approval for the Wrigley to Norman Wells section. Funding was only secured for the completion of the environmental assessment and not for construction.

Follow the author on Twitter @JOC_Evan.

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