Renewing the Northern Vision
It’s time for Canada to – once again – develop the vision for the territories’ future.
It can be hard to fathom the immensity of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories — and the challenges that vast size brings — from the comfort of a well-serviced home south of the 60th parallel. The land stretches from its southern boundary to the Mackenzie River Delta in the far northwest of Canada to Alert at the top of Ellesmere Island to the island of Saniqiluaq in the south part of Hudson Bay. Together, the two territories make up almost one-third of Canada’s land area, 3.4 million square kilometres of forest, tundra and mountains, rivers and lakes and small, far-flung communities. It contains a massive wealth of animals and birds, of topographies and people and cultures. That land also holds a stunning number of mineral deposits. Gold, zinc, lead, diamonds, uranium, cobalt and more are there in quantities and qualities that would, if the territories were covered by similar infrastructure to, say, Ontario’s, already have been mined. Roads, railways, power lines, fibre optic connections – these lower the cost of building and operating a mine, making the extraction of a resource economical when, if that infrastructure were hundreds of kilometres from the mine, it would not be. But there is so little infrastructure in Nunavut and the NWT that it’s difficult to expand the Northern mining industry. With harsh winter weather, no roads, and no available power supply, companies manage challenging and expensive logistics to move mine equipment and all other supplies by ship, tug and barge, airplane and ice roads. An orebody must be proven to be large and mineable over several years before a company can raise the large sums necessary to develop it. Today there are only six mines currently operating: three diamond mines in the NWT and, in Nunavut, two gold mines and one iron ore mine. (A third gold mine in Nunavut, Agnico Eagle’s Meliadine mine, will open in early 2019 and Meadowbank’s mine life has been extended eight years with the Whale Tail deposit 64 kilometers north.) Their footprints barely scratch the surface. Over the last 22 years, mining in NWT and Nunavut has created nearly 70,000 person years of employment. The mines have spent over $26 billion in construction and operating costs, much of that going to people and companies in northern Canada. And even with just six mines, the industry is the largest private-sector contributor to the northern economy, directly responsible for 32 percent of the two territories’ GDP last year. But Ekati and Diavik, the NWT’s two oldest diamond mines, are maturing, and many northerners are concerned that the lack of new exploration in the past decade means there are no new large finds to replace them. Public and Indigenous governments are rallying for infrastructure investments because they benefit not only industry but also the communities, which struggle with high living costs and a lack of employment. They are looking to the federal government to provide a vision, leadership and investment dollars to develop long-term opportunities for the North.
There was a time when the federal government did such things. From the 1930s through to the 1970s, investments were made in roads, ports, railways and power infrastructure, much of which remains serving northerners to this day. But then, about 40 years ago, the money dried up. No major funding. Federal reports about initiatives being undertaken were no longer written. And with the money gone, so went the vision.
Current and former federal governments have talked about supporting the North through infrastructure investment, but little progress has been made in recent decades. Development projects remain stalled. Resources remain in the ground. It’s a source of frustration for Tom Hoefer, a lifelong northerner and the executive director of the NWT & Nunavut Chamber of Mines. “We have a really powerful resource in our backyard,” he says. “We have one-third of Canada in terms of land area, with huge geological diversity, which hasn’t been looked at enough. Now, what can we do with it? Can we turn it into wealth and use that wealth to raise the standards of living for the people? With help we could.”
Now, he says, with the federal government working on a new Arctic policy, is the time to strike a bold new course.
The vision of a former federal government can be seen in the May 1966 speech given by then federal Minister of Northern Affairs, Arthur Laing, to the Canadian Institute of Mining in Edmonton. Laing spoke of the North’s great resource potential and of the need for the federal government to make investments. “It is inconceivable that all the lands north of the 60th parallel, which we believe contain a great resource potential, will remain as an undeveloped portion of Canada,” he said.
Federal governments made major infrastructure investments in the North, in roads and railways and power plants, and many of those investments continue to pay dividends. The Snare Hydro System was built in 1948 for the growing community of Yellowknife and its gold mines. It continues to power the territorial capital to this day. In the 1960s, the federal government invested in a highway to Yellowknife, in the Great Slave Lake Railway and in the Taltson Hydro facility, which provided power to the communities of Fort Smith and Hay River and the Pine Point zinc-lead mine. The railway now terminates at Hay River, the highway to Yellowknife remains a crucial link to the south and Taltson continues to generate power for communities south of Great Slave Lake.
In the 1970s, the federal government built the town site, dock and airport for the Nanisivik zinc-lead mine on Baffin Island, and took an 18 percent ownership in the project. Then, with a group of shipping companies, the federal government developed the world’s first ice-breaking cargo ship, the MV Arctic. The ship serviced Nanisivik and the Polaris zinc mine on Little Cornwallis Island. Later on, the MV Arctic carried ore from Quebec’s Raglan mine and the Voisey’s Bay mine in Labrador and, after a substantial refit a few years ago by its present owner FedNav, that ship continues to operate. The world-class ice-breaking technology developed for the Voisey’s Bay project is used in modern ore-carriers and other ships in the Arctic. The government made many smaller investments too. Annual reports produced by the Northern Affairs Department between 1961 and 1975 describe programs for northern roads and airports that were designed to assist with resource development. “Area development roads” opened up relatively undeveloped regions and “mine development roads” served an area where two or more mining companies made substantial progress toward large-scale production, all financed entirely by the federal government. Another category of road, “mine access roads,” served the property of one mining company capable of achieving production on a large enough scale to warrant federal assistance. They were financed two-thirds by the federal government and one-third by the company.
There were also support programs for airports through the Northern Resource Airports Program and the Remote Airports Program, and the territorial government contributed to even smaller “tote roads”, which provided temporary seasonal or year-round access to a mining property. “There’s a recognition through all of these reports that the federal government has a role to play to catalyze resource development, understanding that mining can’t do everything,” Hoefer says. “That’s what we’ve lost in the last 40 years. The question is, ‘How do we rejuvenate that?’” The Conservative government of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper produced a northern strategy and put some money into communities for improvements to harbours and docks, but funded nothing remotely game-changing for mining. The road from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, funded by the federal and territorial governments, was completed in 2017 for community and national sovereignty purposes. This road could benefit any oil and gas development in the region but the five-year moratorium exploration in the Beaufort Sea, announced by the Liberal federal government in December 2016, has prevented that. Success can be seen with the funding, again by both governments, of the 97 km Tlicho all-season road, planned for construction to the community of Whati. It will also aid development and operations of Fortune Minerals’ NICO project and could open up other opportunities in that region, but the short road is fairly limited in its reach when considering the size of the territories. There is also partial federal funding — $130 million — for the Mackenzie Valley Highway. The NWT’s Minister of Industry, Tourism and Investment, Wally Schumann, says the focus will be on a bridge over the Bear River, near Tulita. “That was a nice little win for us because that’s been a project we’ve been chasing all the way back to the 1970s,” Schumann says. “To get that type of investment now is pretty timely.”
Aside from those projects, the 40‐year gap in investment means there is no shortage of needs. There has been minimal funding for the proposed Taltson Hydroelectricity Expansion, which would see the Taltson dam expanded from 18 to 60 MW of power and tied into the Snare system north of Great Slave Lake, thereby making the NWT grid longer and more stable. Power lines from an expanded Taltson could link to Avalon’s Nechalacho rare earth minerals project, a renewed Pine Point zinc-lead project or even to the existing diamond mines. It would also reduce the NWT’s reliance on electricity produced from diesel generators. “The expansion is tied to (an) energy strategy and greenhouse gas reductions,” Schumann says. “Our federal partners see the relevance of this project for our goals, and theirs, of greenhouse gas reductions, and hopefully we’ll work hand in hand to secure funding to do some early work on it.”
Former president of the Kitikmeot Inuit Association, Charlie Evalik, has long advocated for the $527-million Grays Bay Road and Port Project, which would see a deep-water port at Grays Bay, on the shores of the Northwest Passage between Bathurst Inlet and Kugluktuk. From the port, the road would stretch south into the Slave Geological Province, facilitating exploration and development of a number of valuable mineral deposits in the area, estimated to be worth as much as $80 billion. Initially, the road would be built to the former Jericho diamond mine; later construction would see it terminate at the NWT border, where it would tie into the current winter road or, eventually, to an all-season road. “It’s going to be beneficial,” Evalik says. “It’s Inuit-led, the communities are in support of it and we’re using traditional knowledge along with western science as foundations for doing the studies.” The port would serve other purposes, too. It would be a port to stage supplies for the annual community resupply and could also be used by the Coast Guard, the Department of National Defence and cruise ships for refuelling and resupplying. “I’d like to see the federal government develop a vision like when they built Canada,” Evalik says. “They had a vision for a railroad and a vision for roads to resources. That’s no longer been big on the radar for the federal government.” The most useful project from the perspective of the NWT’s mining industry would be the southern portion of that road into the Slave Geological Province, where Ekati, Diavik and Gahcho Kué diamond mines operate. This area has some of the best mining prospects in the world, and it has been compared to the famous Abitibi Belt of northern Ontario and Quebec, home to more than 100 mines over the last century, which created significant wealth for those provinces and for Canada. There are known deposits of precious and base metals in the region, as well as rare earth minerals and more diamonds. An all-season road would provide access to those deposits, do away with the need to rebuild the ice road every winter and sustain all three mines with lower operating costs. Hoefer recently took his findings and concerns to the Special Senate Committee on the Arctic, which was formed early in 2018 to support sustainable development in the North. Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson chairs the committee, and finds Hoefer’s arguments persuasive. “There is a role for Canada to invest in Northern Canada because the North’s prosperity rebounds many times in the rest of Canada,” he says. He agrees that Grays Bay checks all the right boxes in terms of economic development, environmental protections and reconciliation with Indigenous people. Patterson says the community of Baker Lake has received considerable benefits from Agnico Eagle’s Meadowbank gold mine, 105 kilometres north of the community. It has provided training, jobs and business opportunities to the people of Baker Lake and other communities in the region, and Patterson says the social indicators have been going the right way. “We’ve seen how a mining project can lift up an entire community,” he says. “It’s not lightning fast but there is slow improvement that is very impressive.” Patterson emphasizes that mines and the jobs they provide are not going to solve the North’s social issues alone, but they play a significant part and deserve federal support. “It’s quite amazing that Nunavut has permitted and licensed one mine in each region of the territory without any federal infrastructure support,” he says. “Imagine the growth if we could build access.”
Hoefer says this is an opportune time to make something happen, as the federal government is working on a new Arctic policy. “Let’s capture this opportunity by doing something game changing,” he says, seeking a commitment to steady, reliable, long-term investment. “Not just a pittance every year. Not per capita funding, but game-changing funding to help the territories advance, not only because it’s good for the territories, but because it’s good for Canada.”