Smart Policies: Roads And Our Investment Priorities
Updated: Sep 9, 2019
The first big funding for the Slave Geological Province corridor was announced last week.
It’s obviously important news. But to be honest, I don’t know how I feel about it. Here’s why.
“Road to Resources”
The purpose of this road has always been clear: open up a region of well-known mining potential.
I get that. The mining industry is important to the territorial economy. And let me be clear: I think responsible mining is necessary to a thriving economy here. It’s all in how it’s managed.
But the announcement made me think of a story on CBC a while back. It was called Guardian of the Road, and it followed Infrastructure employee Mickey Hempler on a trip up the Mackenzie Valley Winter Road from Wrigley to Norman Wells.
It detailed what is increasingly a chaotic journey as the climate changes. That’s something that’s making communities like Tulita, Fort Good Hope, and Norman Wells anxious.
Another project that has been on the horizon for a while would address this issue: the Mackenzie Valley Highway all-season extension from Wrigley to the Dempster.
While I understand the government is pushing both projects, I want to look at these two projects through the lens of setting priorities for our spending.
First, there’s no question from the project assessments that the Slave Geological Province road would likely have a much bigger impact on the territory’s economy. The project planning documents suggest the benefit would be to the tune of billions more to the GDP, although the vast majority of the profit doesn’t remain in territory. That’s why it’s getting a lot of political weight thrown behind it right now.
But there’s a whole lot of speculation in that reporting. It assumes that a number of new mineral deposits will be developed, and the most lucrative scenarios only come true if the connecting Gray’s Bay Road and Port project in Nunavut — largely stalled in recent years — becomes a reality.
Furthermore, it’s not clear any of these theoretical mines would have nearly enough clean energy available to operate while staying consistent with our territory’s emission targets unless the feds come through with another big pot of money for another megaproject – the Taltson Hydro Expansion.
And theoretical economics should not be the only consideration when we set priorities – particularly given the volatile nature of the minerals industry.
Additionally, we are talking about opening up large swaths of Akaitcho territory to development, prior to settling their land claim. This combined with the fact that the Bathurst Caribou herd is at risk of going extinct, building a road directly through their calving grounds, makes me question the priority of this road without progress on those fronts first.
We do know that the Mackenzie Valley Highway, on the other hand, would bring tremendous social transformation to the territory. It would connect three communities to Canada’s road system, and get communities like Deline and Colville Lake closer to integrating into that network. (There are proposals to connect these communities through access roads as well, but the current focus is on the route to the Dempster).
For people in these communities, it would be a game-changer. Goods and services would be more accessible and affordable. Tourism could boom as some of the territory’s hidden gems — the Mackenzie and Franklin Mountains — open up to the world. Isolation would be reduced. And, with stories like Mickey’s in-mind, this is increasingly looking like a necessary piece of climate change adaptation for nearly 2000 residents we serve.
Connecting the territory would also open new opportunities for entrepreneurs to build successful businesses in these communities. When new markets open up, it’s a whole lot easier to consider things like making small-scale commercial agriculture or fishing more viable along the route.
While I believe we need to look beyond the oil industry as a large-scale export industry, there is a whole lot of natural gas along the proposed route. Opening those reserves up could improve the economics of a regional power and heating plan for communities along the route which would ultimately reduce the carbon footprint by reducing reliance on diesel – similar to what the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation has proposed for their region.
And the project proposal has a pretty comprehensive plan for making this into a mass-training exercise to get people in communities ready for jobs beyond the road crew, too. No such plan is posted for the Slave Geological Province project.
So what’s your point?
My point is that sometimes we get distracted by the shiny thing when we’re setting spending priorities.
We should be looking beyond the short term and thinking about the social change our big projects can affect.
And we should be thinking about when we go forward with these things: the federal government will only give us so much money, and we only have so much to contribute from our relatively small tax base.
So what is our priority?
Is it making industry a bunch of money relatively quickly? Or should we be thinking long-term and connecting our communities while making them more resilient to climate change today, then looking at how to put the next generation to work tomorrow?
I say it’s best we use our investment dollars to make our communities more resilient first. So let’s put our political weight behind projects like the Mackenzie Valley Highway.
I’m not saying that one day we shouldn’t get the Slave Geological Province road built someday – it would be a pretty transformational investment if it finally connected our friends in Nunavut to the national highway system.
I’m just saying that as it stands now, it’s a road to some potential mines without a viable terminus at tidewater or any infrastructure in-place for industrial-scale clean energy.
By re-focusing our energy and looking beyond the immediate dollar signs, we could help bring our territory together and make a real difference for people living in the valley.
Rylund Johnson, JD