GNWT admits it may have to take the lead on Hay River dredging


The NWT government says it is “willing to lead the work” of dredging Hay River’s harbour if the federal government hands over the money required.

Large-scale harbour channel dredging in Hay River hasn’t happened since Ottawa’s Canada-wide dredging program was discontinued in the mid-1990s.

Residents, fishers and politicians agree that the build-up of sediment risks stranding and delaying vital resupply barges for northern communities, disrupting industry, and potentially worsening flood damage, though the consequences of increased sediment on flooding are complex.

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In the past month, a range of federal departments have denied direct responsibility for funding the work, though Infrastructure Canada has suggested its disaster mitigation program – already heavily oversubscribed – could be an option.

Asked where money could come from, northern affairs minister Dan Vandal told Cabin Radio: “I’ve committed to making some calls, talking to other ministers, and I’ll try to get a clear answer.”

But the money is useless without people to acquire the equipment and do the work, which the federal government also previously provided.

In the NWT legislature on Thursday, the territorial government – which has long insisted dredging is a federal responsibility – softened its stance by acknowledging the GNWT may well have to be the ones at least doing the work, if not paying for it.

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“The responsibility for dredging Hay River harbour lies within the federal government,” said infrastructure minister Diane Archie, laughing as she spoke to acknowledge she was delivering a line ministers have repeated in the legislature for decades.

“However,” Archie continued, “given the importance of the Hay River harbour, and the urgency to restore it, we are willing to lead the work if ongoing federal funding is provided.”

The minister’s commitment followed a plea from Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson after a summer in which Hay River suffered severe flooding and a freight barge ended up marooned in the channel outside the community.

“Earlier this year, the build-up of sediment at the mouth of the east channel of the Hay River reached a critical level,” Simpson said.

“Last spring and throughout the summer, Marine Transportation Services, the coast guard and commercial fishing vessels all experienced grounding of vessels on sandbars, resulting in negative impacts on equipment, marine service delivery, and industry livelihood.

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“Regardless of whose responsibility it is, the issue is in our back yard. So as far as I’m concerned, it is our problem. Is it our responsibility, and we must do something about it.”

Dredging becomes one of several factors Archie and her department must now consider as they reflect on a 2022 barging season that has ended badly.

A barge destined for Sachs Harbour was cancelled late last week as weather conditions mean the trip can no longer be safely completed, following a delayed start to the summer shipping season.

The Department of Infrastructure said on Friday that staff would spend the weekend beginning to contact Sachs Harbour residents and find alternatives means – ordinarily, air transport – of getting urgently needed goods to the community.

Speaking a day earlier, Archie told the legislature: “A successful sailing season is dependent on many factors, including some that are beyond our control.

“Silt buildup will be the number-one factor that will be assessed during our end-of-season review.”

The minister said other factors include unusual water levels, a barge that washed into the Hay River during spring flooding, the deployment of buoys – which took place later than is normally the case – and weather conditions.