A small sum of new federal and territorial funding will allow the Northwest Territories to begin work on plans to expand its Taltson hydro system.
At the moment, Taltson powers the South Slave. In three phases, the NWT government wants to connect Taltson to the North Slave, use it to help power diamond mines, and lastly connect the whole grid to the south for the first time.
On Wednesday, the federal and territorial governments together contributed $1.2 million which, while nowhere near the final cost of the project, will at least get it started.
$480,000 from CanNor will be used to fund some preparatory engineering work, alongside a $120,000 GNWT contribution.
$620,000 from two federal departments – Natural Resources Canada and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs – will foster local First Nations' involvement in the project.
Dominic LeBlanc, the federal northern affairs minister, strongly hinted at significant further funding by stating he understood Taltson would be a "long-term partnership" requiring "considerably more investment" in future.
NWT Premier Bob McLeod said the territory had already requested additional cash.
McLeod called Taltson "more than a transmission project," representing a key plank in his government's attempts to lower the cost of living and address climate change.
"Canada has an important role to play," he said.
'Gets the ball rolling'
Expansion of Taltson, around 60 km north of Fort Smith, is portrayed by the territorial government as vital to the economic fortunes of the NWT in the coming decades.
There are two main reasons for that. The first is bringing cheaper power rates to residents; the second is cheap, clean power for mining, which the territory hopes will drive more economic investment in the North.
The two governments believe completing Taltson would take out 15 percent of the NWT's annual greenhouse gas emissions – or, to use their example, remove the equivalent of 48,000 cars from the road.
Up till now, the expansion – expected to cost more than $1 billion if all three phases are completed – has been little more than a dream.
Despite many years of study and conjecture, the federal cash to actually start a project so large in scale has never been present.
Pointing to federal emissions reduction targets, the NWT government has told Ottawa it needs hundreds of millions of dollars in federal help for the Taltson project or else its climate change goals will be missed.
Wednesday's investment is still a drop in that ocean but does, in the territory's words, "get the ball rolling."
Of note, LeBlanc spoke at the announcement as if the whole project had already been given the green light, declaring it will "provide great employment" and "connect with provincial networks allowing important market access for this clean, green energy."
"It will require considerably more investment from the Government of Canada and other partners," LeBlanc continued.
"We recognize it's part of a long-term partnership with the Government of the NWT and Indigenous communities to make sure we get this done properly and get it done right."
LeBlanc said he hoped to announce a "further continuation" of that partnership in the coming months.
"We look forward to many more visits in the future," McLeod jauntily added.
'Full Indigenous participation'
The CanNor money will in part allow the NWT to further explore laying underwater cables across Great Slave Lake to connect Taltson to the North Slave.
Money from Crown-Indigenous Relations will be used to help the Akaitcho Territory Government, the Northwest Territory Métis Nation, and the Salt River First Nation work on business models related to the project.
"Partnering with Indigenous governments is an integral component of this project," said Wally Schumann – the minister responsible for the NWT's infrastructure and industry – in prepared remarks.
"Incorporating Indigenous rights, knowledge and cultural values into project design and implementation, and having full participation in contract negotiations and technical work, will help ensure the project moves forward in the right way, and that all stakeholders experience its far-reaching benefits."
Phase one would see Taltson upgraded from 18MW to 60MW in generating capacity, then linked by underwater cable to the North Slave's Snare system.
While Schumann called the announcement "an exciting time" for the territory – and LeBlanc spoke in certain terms about its bright future – no public, long-term guarantee has been made of the federal investment necessary to pay for a project the NWT has admitted it can never afford alone.
A territorial government Q&A produced for the announcement noted Ottawa could be looking at a $750 million price tag, at least, to finish the job.
"If the Taltson project were to proceed," it read, "the federal government could provide funding for 75 percent of the project costs while the GNWT could be responsible for the remaining 25 percent."