Tuk, It’s Complicated–Politics:Why was this $300-million road built?

Pingo National Landmark (ice-core hills) to the left–Tuktouyaktuk to the right
Pingo National Landmark (ice-core hills) to the left–Tuktouyaktuk to the right

In November 2017, the 148-kilometre Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway (ITH) opened, Canada’s first all-weather road to the Arctic Coast. In June 2019, Spice and I drove what’s also officially known in the Northwest Territories as Highway 10.

After our 79-day overland-camping trip in the Western USA in the summer of 2017, we were keen to find another road trip with spectacular scenery, a bit challenging and away from the beaten path. After reading a three-part posting (Part 1; Part 2; Part 3) by three global adventurers driving a Defender 90 and an ancient Range Rover Classic—the first members of the public to drive the ITH—we were hooked–ITH joined our bucket list.

At the edge of the Arctic Ocean, Tuktoyaktuk (Tuk) was established in the 1930s as a small village around the Hudson Bay Trading Post. It has grown to a population of ~900, isolated from the closest settlement of Inuvik and, until the all-weather ITH opened, Tuk was accessible only by plane, barge or a 187-kilometre ice road that had to be rebuilt each winter.

The ITH was the last leg of John G. Diefenbaker’s 1958 “Northern Vision” and “Road to Resources” campaign to extend Canadian nationhood to the Arctic and develop its natural resources for the benefit of all Canadians. In some ways, the Northern Vision was a political platform, an economic platform and an ideological platform. The first leg, the Dempster gravel highway from Dawson City to Inuvik, was completed in 1979.

A congenial staff member at the NWT Tourist Information Centre in Inuvik explained to Spice and me that in addition to logical reasons for building the road, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in the 2011 campaign, promised to complete the Road to Resources, “if elected.” He fulfilled his promise at the ITH ground-breaking ceremony in January 2014.

With completion of the $300-million road ($0.33 million per resident!), residents of Tuk have had their cost-of-living reduced because goods can be transported in year round, and their access to health care and educational and economic opportunities has improved. The ITH has also provided  them with better opportunities for family, social, recreational and sporting interactions with friends and relatives in Inuvik.

In addition to individual benefits for the citizens of Tuk, a priority for the region was economic development in the Arctic, including oil and gas, mining and the building of transportation corridors. But in December 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a moratorium on all new offshore oil and gas activity in the Arctic, renewable for a five-year period. The Premier of the NWT expressed his disappointment that Trudeau made this unilateral decision without prior consultation with the Indigenous and political leadership of the territories.

And then, a month after the ITH opened, Imperial Oil announced its much-delayed $16.1-billion project to build the Mackenzie Valley Gas Pipeline from the coast of the Beaufort Sea to northern Alberta would not proceed and the pipeline partnership, including the Aboriginal Pipeline Group, was dissolved. This, despite the industry having discovered __ trillion cubic feet of gas in the Mackenzie River Delta. Imperial said the project “could not make money in the current North American natural gas market, now well-served with gas from American and Canadian shale gas plays.”

For a gravel road, it was a joy to drive. It is very well maintained; every day we saw half a dozen or so graders smoothing the road. Few other vehicles were on the highway.

We were part of an expected boost to tourism that the ITH would provide: an estimated $2.7 million per year, along with 22 full-time jobs. Will it? We’ll explore that a bit more in subsequent posts as part of this series but here’s an example of why we think those estimates are grossly overstated.

I’d hoped to fish but was told at the band office in Inuvik that they didn’t know when the person who could sell the fishing licences would be back, that sport fishing was catch-and-release only and that I should get a gun because if I caught anything, the bears would expect to get their share. Plus, from April 10 to June 1, and from August 15 to October 15, you cannot sport fish within 10 kilometres of the centreline of the ITH Highway.

Driving the ITH fulfilled a bucket-list dream. But it also left us with a lot of unresolved questions that I’ll address in subsequent segments.

  • Tuk, It’s Complicated—Climate Change: When will Tuk melt into the ocean?
  • Tuk, It’s Complicated—Tourism: When will a Plan be Developed?
  • Tuk, It’s Complicated —Sitting on 2.1 TCF of Stranded Natural Gas: So why are electrical and heating costs so high?


Inuvik Tuktoyaktuk Highway

8 Responses

  1. Quite the trip, thanks! Sounds as if there were enough gravel pits for fill for the road. Was that a problem? Wonder what will be found out from the temperature sensor data.
    Did you have a tour of Tuktoyaktuk? Did you get a chance to get any drone video?

    1. The temperature sensors support the modelling done prior to construction, showing the permafrost under the road being protected. But a concern is the insulation effect of the snow on the leeward slope not allowing the cold to penetrate each winter cycle. They have a few experimental plots where they are compressing the snow twice each winter creating a better freezing profile.

      We camped in Tuk and got to talk to a few teenagers and young men who were curious about our trip and shared their views of life in Tuktoyaktuk.

  2. Fascinating topography; no molehills to block the scenery there it seems ..

    I look forward to future posts on this land..


    1. The Tuk highway is an engineering experiment in how to protect the permafrost that is being watched by many northern countries. There was no cutting into the high points – only build up from gravel pits. Cross-section temperature sensors are installed in several locations. The build-up appears to be doing its job of protecting the permafrost below the road. But snow accumulations on the leeward side of the road are acting as an insulation layer and permafrost temperatures aren’t dropping as low in the winter, making that area more prone to thawing in the summer. It’s complicated.

  3. Interestingly, we (and two other couples) drove to Tuk about a month after you were there. We had been there before, I in the early 70’s when I worked as a nurse in the Inuvik Hospital and also did some public health visits (e.g. immunizations) to remote communities. We have been twice in the past decade to the Great Northern Arts Festival in Inuvik and visited Tuk both times. Progress in all indigenous communities it seems is slower than it should be. In our trip in 2012, we had a great day long trip to Tuk with a local tour operator – flying to Tuk, guided tour of town, visit to whaling camp on ocean, and then by boat down the Mackenzie back to Inuvik.. as a tourist, that was actually a more informative and interesting visit than when we drove on our own. We had less than ideal weather in 2019 which was a factor for sure. Regardless I think the north is a unique and compelling part of Canada and it would be wonderful if most Canadians had the opportunity to explore it and develop an appreciation of the real and unique challenges of development in the north. I look forward to your next three installments!

    1. Thanks for the personal insight. Could we entice you into writing a guest post on the transitions you’ve seen in Inuvik/Tuk over almost 50 years?

  4. Interesting story, a real political football over the years, hope they remember that come election time.
    With the US sudden re-interest in Saudi Oil our government needs to rethink what’s happening with our resources North of 49.
    The prices are indeed worthy of a double or triple take, I recall milk prices in Yellowknife jumped about 2 dollar increase, for 4 litres) when the ice roads closed prior to the bridge being built over the Mackenzie. Vegetable and fruit quality was very poor even at exorbitant prices, simple take it or leave it.
    Your statement about full gas tanks is extremely truthful, you always fuel up when the opportunity was there👍👍👍

    Interesting too how the Atv’s are exactly where they stopped or the snow melted 🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔

    Nice story, cheers

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