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From the Canadian Arctic


By Rev. Jon Hansen, CSsR
Jon Hansen


Transportation in the North has changed, and is changing still

With the celebration of the opening of the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway to take place on Nov. 15, I focus this month on transportation in the north.

As it was for the rest of Canada, the earliest means of transportation in the Arctic and Beaufort delta involved the waterways. From prehistorical times indigenous peoples invented and perfected forms of watercraft including the kayak and the umiak for their needs which included hunting, fishing and travelling. These vessels, built with locally sourced wood and animal skins were ideally suited for use on the ocean and along the inland rivers and channels.

With the arrival of whalers, fur traders and missionaries in the 19th century modern wooden ship building was introduced to the region as the water was still the only option for long distance voyages. Ships brought trade goods and foreigners into the region and began to influence the lives of the local people, an effect which continues to be raised and debated every time a new era of transportation is faced.

The 20th century brought the advent of the airplane. Small, fixed-wing aircraft turned what would ordinarily be a weeks-long trip into hours and served to open the North to the rest of Canada. Planes could supply necessary commodities all year round and were instrumental in mapping, photographing and studying the northern lands for future resource development that would fuel the North into the new century. Early “bush pilots” gained reputations across the country for their fearless bravado as they navigated the cold, dark skies with only their wits and experience to serve as navigational aids.

The arrival of airplanes did not diminish the ongoing desire for some type of efficient ground transportation to serve the growing northern communities. Dog sleds and trails had been suitable for early hunting and trading but the need for an all-season road was all too apparent.

With the discovery of oil and gas in the Beaufort Delta, this need came to a head and an overland link between Dawson City, YT, and the newly built town of Inuvik, N.W.T., was begun in 1959. Construction of what was to become the Dempster highway would begin and stop, and begin again for the next 20 years until the highway was officially opened in 1979.

(Jon Hansen photo)

The Dempster Highway was named after Canadian Mounted Police Inspector William John Duncan Dempster who, as a young constable, frequently ran this dogsled trail from Dawson City to Fort McPherson, N.W.T. Travelling the Dempster highway today is still not for the faint of heart as it remains a gravel surface road and is a challenging 700 km drive through some of the toughest weather and geography you can imagine. Nevertheless, it serves as an essential corridor to the south for both commerce and personal transportation.

Over the years other ideas for northern ground routes have come and gone. The CANOL road from Norman Wells, N.W.T., through the Mackenzie Mountains to Whitehorse, YT was completed in record time as part of the effort to provide supplies during the Second World War. Once the war ended the need for the road disappeared and it was abandoned just as quickly as it was built leaving only a wilderness hiking trail in its stead.

Another overland link which has been on the books for many years is the Mackenzie Valley highway project which would connect southern Canada to the Arctic coast via the east side of the Mackenzie River corridor. With only a small fraction of the route currently served by winter roads, time will tell whether such a dream will ever come to fruition.

But dreams do come true, at least in the case of the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk highway which is the last section of road needed to connect all of Canada coast to coast to coast. This major infrastructure project has been under construction for the past four years and has been in the planning stages since the 1960s.

Besides the shorth-term benefits of job creation, the hope for the road is that it will bring economic growth to a region of Canada that is in dire need. Through tourism and trade many long-term jobs are expected to grow out of the project and residents will also have greater access to health care and educational opportunities.

That is not to say that the completion of the road is without controversy. Some question whether the advantages of the road will be outweighed by greater exposure to negative influences from the south and other are simply concerned that year-round road access will be one more factor in the continual erosion of an already fragile culture. Whatever the outcome the road is now here and is a part of our Canadian history forged in the uniting of a vast land mass and its diverse peoples.

Hansen is a Redemptorist priest and pastor of Our Lady of Victory Parish, Inuvik. See his website: