When it comes to access and infrastructure, the Canadian North is falling behind other Arctic nations, according to the government-appointed review of the Canada Transportation Act. While natural resources – the economic driver of the three territories and, not to mention, the country as a whole – continue to be explored and developed, access is becoming increasingly important.
“Federal leadership is required to ensure that, as the resource potential of the North is further unlocked, development occurs in such a way as to respect and benefit Northerners, while minimizing environmental impacts,” states the review report, tabled on Feb. 25, 2016.
“Transportation will continue to be a major development catalyst, and because many of the decisions that affect Northern transportation systems are made in the south, it is of utmost importance that these decisions be informed by Northern realities and made in partnership with Northerners.”
The Act, governing the regulation of rail, marine, and air transportation, was tabled in Parliament in February 2014 and the review launched in June of that same year by then-Minister of Transport Lisa Raitt.
“For the most part, Northern infrastructure projects have been built on an ad hoc basis without a long-term cohesive plan or links to trade and travel corridors.”
Chaired by former Conservative cabinet minister David Emerson, along with five advisors, the review panel visited all three territories, speaking with government and other stakeholders and taking responses both in person and in writing.
The objective of the review, particularly in terms of its reference to Northern transportation policy, is clear: bring resources to market and in a way that is efficient, affordable, and advantageous for Northerners.
The findings, which the Liberals will now take into consideration, suggest increased oversight and planning on behalf of the federal government when it comes to getting the North moving.
“For the most part,” the report states, “Northern infrastructure projects have been built on an ad hoc basis without a long-term cohesive plan or links to trade and travel corridors.”
The report identifies six significant areas in which to develop Northern transportation corridors:
- Cassiar-Campbell, a link between mining areas in southeast Yukon with the port of Stewart, B.C.*
- Klondike Dempster, running through central Yukon, between the port of Skagway, Alaska through Inuvik and on to Tuktoyaktuk – the latter part of which will be connected once the Inuvik-Tuk Highway is complete.
- Mackenzie Valley Corridor, which follows the Mackenzie River from Tuktoyaktuk down to Yellowknife and Hay River. An all-weather road connecting this route has been on the books of the GNWT for decades.*
- Coronation Yellowknife, stretching northeast from Yellowknife, through the Slave Geological Province on to Grays Bay, Nunavut.*
- Hudson Bay, connecting Nunavut’s Kivalliq Region to Montreal via sealift and to Winnipeg through various modes of transportation.
- Arctic Sealift, which encompasses the coastline of Nunavut and the NWT.
*immediate support for related projects suggested
Immediate recommendations: A 10-year investment of $50 million per year toward runway extensions and surfacing, automated weather and landing systems for territorial airports.
The sole method of transportation to many Northern communities was flagged as a concern by the report, due to aging fleets of aircraft landing on the short gravel runways common in the territories.
“The Review has heard that newer and more efficient jet aircraft will require paved runways and aprons (the tarmac area where planes are parked, refuelled, loaded, etc.),” the report reads. “The heightened risk that attends the use of unpaved, short runways in Northern and remote aviation could mean that services are lost, or that there are a higher number of accidents.”
The report also notes that smaller airports in Northern communities fall under many of the general aviation regulations in place across the country, despite the disparity in the size of the operation.
“This one-size-fits-all approach may not be appropriate or realistic for the smaller airports of the North because the risks that the regulations seek to address are different in the North, as are the operating realities,” the report says.
In terms of supporting aviation in the Northern regions, the U.S. government, by comparison, has $249 million USD set aside under its Essential Air Services program to contribute to 120 communities, including 43 in Alaska. The state has 61 paved airports, according to the report; about six times as many as all three Canadian territories combined – though it should be noted the state has a population of more than 700,000.
Immediate recommendation: Increase base funding for territorial infrastructure development and take into account Northern realities, such as high cost of construction and longer periods of planning and construction on projects.
It’s hardly surprising that in terms of on-land transportation, the review found that only Yukon was well served. The NWT is only partially connected by all-weather roads, with many communities relying on ice roads or air service. In Nunavut, there are no highways connecting communities, limiting transportation to marine and aviation.
“Concerns have been expressed about the lack of marine ice pilots with adequate experience in Canadian Arctic shipping. This is a serious safety and efficiency issue. Some private sector experts claim that Canadian ice pilotage standards are lower than Russian standards.”
Looking back, pre-war politics saw the U.S. fund major infrastructure projects in the Canadian North, such as the Alaska Highway. Built in 1943, the corridor navigates northeastern B.C. from Dawson Creek through Yukon to link the apportioned state of Alaska to the rest of the country. The U.S. also financed the Canol pipeline and roadway in 1942 to carry oil from the NWT’s Sahtu region over to a refinery in Whitehorse and on to Alaska.
Later on, the Canadian government’s late 1950s Roads to Resources initiative sought to open access to resources by improving land-transportation. This kicked off construction of several routes, including the Dempster Highway. The extension that will link that route to Tuktoyaktuk, and subsequently the south, is currently underway. Construction on the Dempster began in 1959 and the Inuvik-Tuk Highway is slated for completion between late 2017 and early 2018, having received targeted funding under the federal government’s 2011 budget in addition to territorial funding.
Immediate recommendation: Increased investment in marine transport and responsibility over sealift infrastructure, navigational assistance and support for efficient marine transportation in the North.
The review points to one concern over requirements for operators on the water, gathered from comments from stakeholders on marine transport.
“Concerns have been expressed about the lack of marine ice pilots with adequate experience in Canadian Arctic shipping,” the report states. “This is a serious safety and efficiency issue. Some private sector experts claim that Canadian ice pilotage standards are lower than Russian standards, for example.”
In Russia, three years of navigating experience in icy waters is required. In Canada, the requirement is only 30 days under the Arctic Ice Regime Shipping System.
As well, the report points to the federal government’s diminishing support for the maintenance of Northern port infrastructure. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans, up until March 2013, kicked in $500,000 per year toward sealift and resupply support in Nunavut. The Northwest Territories also formerly saw dredging services provided by the federal government along the Hay River – a key route for goods heading to the High Arctic.
“While aboard a small vessel, representatives of the Review experienced firsthand the extremely shallow water on the Hay River—an additional example of the need for federal leadership to improve northern transportation networks,” the report reads.
In contrast, the Russian government has focused on improving its Northern Sea Route, allowing for long-term trade opportunities between the Barents Sea and the Bering Strait.
The report concludes that when it comes to supporting the economic drivers of the country – that is, bringing resources to market – infrastructure in the North is falling short.
“The current approach to federal infrastructure funding and Northern marine and air transportation policies are not sufficient in scope, or proceeding at a sufficiently rapid pace, to enable Canada to grasp the opportunities that the North offers.”◉
Photo: istockphoto/Nikolay Tsuguliev