NWT plans to start new road toward Nunavut 'within 5 years'

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The Northwest Territories hopes to begin building a new, all-season road toward Nunavut, through an area "rich in mineral deposits," in the next five years.

$2.7 million in federal funding, announced on Monday, will help the territory plan the road into an area known as the Slave Geological Province.

The eventual goal is to extend the road from Highway 4's present endpoint, at Tibbitt Lake, to the border with Nunavut.

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A federal news release stated the territory hopes to begin building phase one of the project – a 179-km road from Tibbitt Lake to Lockhart Lake – "within five years."

Monday's announcement marks the second time this year the federal government has provided comparatively small sums of money to help large-scale NWT infrastructure projects, while promising Ottawa's long-term commitment to seeing those projects happen.

In January, the federal government announced just over $1 million to start the Taltson hydro expansion – seen as transformative for the NWT's economy, bringing cheaper, cleaner power to the territory, but also expected to cost in excess of $1 billion to complete.

At the time, federal northern affairs minister Dominic LeBlanc said his government would "make sure we can complete this project and do so in the right way."

On Monday, another federal minister – Navdeep Bains, responsible for economic development agency CanNor – said Ottawa was "committed to the creation of more good jobs, more economic growth and long-term sustainable development in the North."

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Taltson's expansion and the Slave Geological Province road have both been talked about for many years.

They are seen as twin prongs of a major infrastructure push that will cost billions but, in the eyes of the territorial government, pay off in increased economic opportunities.

Neither project will be possible without the federal government shouldering most of the financial burden.

The Slave Geological Province road will "increase access to the world-class mineral deposits located in the region and lower the cost of mineral exploration and development," Wally Schumann, the territory's industry minister, said in a statement.

No cost estimate for the full project was given, but – like the Taltson expansion – the road would be expected to cost many hundreds of millions of dollars.

Aerial surveys

Monday's announcement took place in Toronto at the PDAC mining convention, meaning Cabin Radio was not able to immediately question ministers on its contents.

The federal $2.7-million investment, coupled with $678,000 from the NWT, will pay for some basic planning of the new road but not construction itself.

A separate federal payment of $2.4 million, with $280,000 from the NWT and $749,000 from "industry partners," will fund aerial geophysical surveys of the region.

"The surveys will lead to the development of mapping products used by mineral exploration companies to target their activity," read a federal news release.

Schumann said the territory hopes increasing the quality of publicly available data will stimulate development in the region, particularly if the NWT can demonstrate it is moving toward putting a road in place.

The Slave Geological Province, which covers an area to the north and east of Yellowknife in the direction of Nunavut, is already home to three operational diamond mines.

Federal background documents stated: "Existing mines are reached via a winter road and the immediate priority for the GNWT is to replace the southernmost section of the current winter road with an all-season gravel road.

"An all-season road could significantly improve the economics of many operating and potential resource projects by facilitating year-round access, as well as increasing the operating season of the winter road by at least 30 days."

Planning for the road will include consultation with Indigenous groups and wildlife and vegetation studies, a background document stated.

The territory argues replacing the winter ice road with an all-weather road will improve reliability of access, allow the creation of a power and communications link, and ultimately allow the NWT to use a Nunavut deep-water port.

Moreover, the NWT has in the past said a "firm commitment" to the road from Ottawa would "extend existing mine life and drive an immediate increase in exploration activity."

The finished road, once three major phases are completed, would be 413 km in length.

A GNWT graphic shows the proposed route of the Slave Geological Province access corridor.