(The 138 km highway replaces a 50-year old ice road. Photo: Charlotte Morritt-Jacobs/APTN)
APTN News Saturday
While the fanfare will fade and the visitors will go back south, for the generations of eager Northerners the wait is finally over – the Inuvik Tuktoyaktuk Highway is open.
It was a historical day for the residents of two communities in the Northwest Territories Wednesday when the 138 km all-weather Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk opened to the public.
This ends the 50-year history of Canada’s longest winter ice road, a road that linked Tuk to the Dempster Hwy. – and to the rest of the country.
For the Gwich’in, Inuvialuit, and Metis it’s an extension of the lifeline that was the ice road to Tuk.
“This road is freedom. People that don’t have the equipment the harvesting that they use to do, or they aren’t as physically active as they use to be. This gives them access to do things that they love to do,” said Jimmy Kalinek, a tourism and guided tours operator from Inuvik.
The ice road was only open a quarter of the year but it was a permanent fixture in the hearts of many.
The ice road was laid with memories, both frightening and happy.
“January, in the dark of 1991, I was changing a tire and I heard a noise. I looked around and there was a wolf behind me. I got up and made a noise and shown a flashlight at it and there was seven more surrounding me,” said Joe Cooke, an ice road maintenance operator with the government of the NWT for over 30 years.
For Kalinek, his memory was being able to see family.
“It was always Christmastime; you go to Aklavik and to Tuk and see family members there and go and celebrate with the community. You would go see the drummers or go to the jamborees, there’s a lot of good memories,” said Kalinek.
Commuters of the ice road held celebrations in April 2017 to make the end of the last ice road season for the small hamlet of 900.
APTN spoke with residents of their bewilderment at the thought of future generations never being able to experience the road.
Nostalgia for the lifeline that was the ice road to Tuk mixed with the hope for new possibilities from year-round connectivity.
But the permanent road comes at a cost – $300 million.
The project was two thirds federally-funded and one-third territorial.
On the day of the opening, Northwest Territories Premier Bob McLeod was joined by Canada’s Governor General Julie Payette, representatives from local Indigenous groups and other government dignitaries.
McLeod dubbed the opening of the road as “an important day for the Northwest Territories and Canada.”
A ribbon ceremony was held in Inuvik before government officials, media and the public took to the highway for the inaugural drive to the arctic coastal community, but it was in Tuk, at the evening ceremony, that the gravity of the new infrastructure set in with Northerners.
“Tuk’s my home. It will always be my home,” said Nahan Kuptan, a Saliqmuit drummer and dancer. “I’m happy our community name is out there, I’m proud.”
The idea of a permanent road has been first floated in the 1960s, but construction occurred four years ago. This so-called “road to resources” was built to give industry greater access to Arctic oil and gas.
The vision for the road would shift in 2016 when Prime Minister Justice Trudeau and former U.S. President Barack Obama placed an Arctic moratorium on oil and gas.
This squashed the hopes for any developments in the near future and left some to question the highway’s $300 million price tag.
The cost of the road was not on the minds of the residents of Tuk at the ceremony who see two-lane, all-weather gravel highway as more than just a connection between two isolated communities.
In a town, where food costs are high and a flight to the neighbouring community costs a few hundred dollars, community members are hoping that the road will lower the cost of living.
The government has also projected a $2.2 million annual increase due to tourism for Tuk.
The spirit of the town was present throughout Wednesday as a feast was served with traditional food, drummers and dancers took to the stage and crafts were sold as keepsakes of the special occasion.