Ice on the banks of the Mackenzie River in Norman Wells in May 2023. Chloe Williams/Cabin Radio
NWT Senator Margaret Dawn Anderson is in the Sahtu this week at the invitation of residents who are stepping up their campaign for swift action to build an all-season highway.
Anderson arrived in Norman Wells on Tuesday and will hold a meeting at the town’s Royal Canadian Legion over lunch on Wednesday before speaking to Tulita residents at the hamlet’s cultural centre at lunchtime on Thursday.
Danny McNeely, the former Sahtu MLA who has said he’ll run again in the district this fall, helped to organize Anderson’s trip.
McNeely says this summer’s wildfires, evacuations and low water levels have demonstrated that the existing supply routes to towns like Norman Wells are breaking down.
“Particularly with the cancellation of the last barge due to low water levels – you can’t even get any propane from the dealership here,” McNeely said last week.
“Climate change disasters this past summer are creating impacts, hardships and project delays. Shelves aren’t restocked.
“Given the impact of this weather that we’re having – the solution is the all-weather road. We’ve got to get moving on this highway, immediately.”
The Mackenzie Valley Highway would be an all-season road connecting the Sahtu to the existing highway network at Wrigley to the south.
The NWT government has backed the building of such a highway for decades but has virtually no money of its own to do the work. So far, most of the $135 million or so received from the federal government has been spent on a bridge and an access road, tiny components of what is probably now a billion-dollar-plus project. The overarching plan must also clear an environmental assessment.
“It speaks to the issues of climate change, of infrastructure that we in the North seem to be behind on compared to the rest of Canada,” said Senator Anderson of concerns in the Sahtu over this summer’s supply line disruption.
Anderson said that while she is a “firm believer” in spending time visiting NWT communities, this is the first chance she has had to make such a trip since last fall. She said Sahtu residents had been “very proactive” in making the arrangements.
She hopes to meet with Norman Wells’ business community and speak at the town’s school before visiting the site of Tulita’s planned Great Bear River Bridge, a small section of what would eventually become the Mackenzie Valley Highway.
The senator says she’ll bring back what she learns to various Senate committees, including an ad-hoc working group formed with other northern senators “to discuss common issues that we face across the territories and northern Manitoba.”
“Quite often, when we have legislation that comes into the Senate, that legislation does not reflect the realities of the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. I believe we’re often disadvantaged for a number of reasons. One of them is infrastructure. One is connectivity. One is the cost,” said Anderson.
“This issue is a much wider issue that hits on many aspects of the legislation that we deal with in the Senate.
“Having that information and being able to bring that information back to Ottawa is central and key to maybe starting the dialogue, maintaining that dialogue and pushing it forward to action.”
McNeely hopes Anderson will “listen to the people and hear the concerns of the people first-hand.”
“The message we want her to take back is we need to improve our supply chain. We can no longer depend on the Mackenzie River and the winter road season gets shorter and shorter,” he said.
“We’re in a critical situation. We can’t predict the future but we can kind-of assume. The wildfires in the southern part of the NWT, is that going to happen in the Sahtu next year? We don’t know. Is there going to come a point where we can no longer have a barge?
“Before we hit those critical points, we should be proactive, take the disasters seriously and find a solution.”
Correction: October 11, 2023 – 20:08 MT. This article initially reported that the trip was sponsored by the Sahtu Secretariat. While advertisements for individual events featuring the senator state that those events are sponsored by the Sahtu Secretariat, the senator’s office said the travel and costs of the senator and staff are paid for from her Senate budget.