Isolated Canadians welcome highway linking country's south to Arctic Ocean
For most of her life, if Laverna Smith wanted a fresh cut of beef, she had to board a plane to fetch it from the nearest butcher. But as of this week, she will be able to hop in her truck and drive there any day of the year – although it will still be a round trip of 276km.
Canada’s first all-season highway linking the country’s south to the Arctic ocean officially opens on Wednesday at 6am. The $300m gravel road stretches from the regional hub of Inuvik to the coastal hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories.
It will trace a warm line across the tundra, making it the country’s only driveable north-west passage to the sea.
Smith hopes the new road will put an end to the isolation sometimes felt by the 800 inhabitants of “Tuk”.
“Oh, it’s going to be a total impact, for sure,” Smith said. “We can just hop in a car and come down to Inuvik whenever we want.”
The highway was first conceived in the 1960s, but the Northwest Territories government did not make its first proposal to the federal government until 1998, and was only granted $200m towards the project in 2009.
Throughout that time, a seasonal winter road allowed goods to be trucked over the ice to Tuktoyaktuk. But in warmer weather, the only access in or out was by plane.
Promised as the “road to resources” by the previous prime minister, Stephen Harper, the highway is also seen as a way to strengthen ties between communities north of the 60th parallel, and those in what they refer to as the “Outside”.
It was once also seen as a potential support for future future oil and gas development in the region, before the Trudeau government last year announced a joint Canada-US moratorium on drilling in all Arctic waters.
Like many in Tuktoyaktuk, Smith is holding out hope that the road brings other benefits.
Smith is a partner in the End of the Road Inn, and hopes to capitalise on the expected increase in tourism by opening the town’s only sit-down restaurant.
“We’re already doing take-out,” Smith said. “We’re just waiting on the last few permits.”
Some local residents have expressed concern that the new road could change the Tuktoyaktuk way of life. “Like all new things, it’ll take some time to settle in,” Smith said.
One worry is that the road could increase access to drugs and alcohol – something many northern communities struggle with. In 2010, the hamlet put restrictions on booze, limiting residents to 48 cans of beer or two litres of liquor, but bootlegging persists.
Smith hopes that the new road will put the bootleggers out of business. If anyone can drive to Inuvik to buy alcohol, there will be no need to smuggle it anymore, she said.
One of the biggest expected benefits will be a decrease in the cost of food. According to a 2014 report, the NWT government expects the highway will help reduce the cost of food, fuel, and other goods by about $1.5m per year.
“Hopefully the groceries will come down a bit,” Smith said.
Canada is preparing to open its first all-season highway linking the country’s south to the Arctic ocean. Photograph: the Government of the Northwest Territories
‘Hopefully the groceries will come down a bit,’ says Laverna Smith. Photograph: the Government of the Northwest Territories