The NWT's plan to build an all-season road northeast of Yellowknife toward Nunavut, through key mining grounds, has received its first major funding.
The federal government announced on Wednesday a $30-million investment to fund regulatory reviews and planning studies for the road, which the NWT says could be "transformative" for its economy.
The eventual vision is of a road, communications link, and power line connecting the NWT to Nunavut and then on to an Arctic deep-water port.
NWT leaders say the main reason for building the road – known as the Slave Geological Province Access Corridor – is to make exploration for valuable mineral deposits, and development of mines, easier.
"This is going to impact the Canadian economy. There is billions of dollars of mineral potential in that area," the territory's industry and infrastructure minister, Wally Schumann, told Cabin Radio.
"[This has] tonnes of global potential. But the base metals need a road to get the product to market."
Previously, the territorial and federal governments have suggested construction could begin by 2024.
The eventual price tag for the 413-km, two-lane gravel road is expected to reach $1.1 billion, the NWT government said in a briefing note.
Many billions more could be produced by mines in the mineral-rich area once the road is built, the territory argues.
The territorial government committed $10 million on Wednesday, for a total new investment of $40 million. The federal money comes from the National Trade Corridors Fund, which rejected the same project last year.
Until now, the Slave Geological Province road had received no more than a few million dollars in federal investment – which, while heartily welcomed by NWT leaders at the time, is nowhere near the amount of money Ottawa will ultimately have to pay for the road to get built. The NWT alone cannot come close to bearing the cost.
The territory's pursuit of this road is not new. For years, ministers have pursued development of a road north from Yellowknife, connecting both current and prospective mine sites – and eventually, in a far-distant project phase, reaching a deep-water port in Nunavut.
The new road is one half of a two-pronged infrastructure grand plan, paired with the Taltson hydro expansion project, which is an almost identically expensive and large-scale plan to hook up the North Slave and its mines to cheaper, cleaner power.
A detail from the Government of the Northwest Territories' proposed route for the Slave Geological Province Access Corridor.
Neither project is remotely close to entering full construction, but signs that the federal government may actually fund them have begun to appear in the past 18 months.
In January, announcing a small package of funding to plan the Taltson project, federal northern affairs minister Dominic LeBlanc said: "Our commitment is … to make sure we can complete this project and do so in the right way.
"We don’t have final decisions and timelines, other than to say for our government it is a very big priority."
The territory has in the past emphasized lithium, nickel, and cobalt as metals available in the Slave Geological Province and demanded by industries like electric vehicle manufacture. On Wednesday, the NWT said it also believes committing to the road will help extend the life of the three existing mines.
Concerns have however been raised that the road would bisect the calving grounds of already-vulnerable Bathurst caribou. Schumann said some of the money announced on Wednesday would be spent assessing impacts on caribou.
The NWT government says it will now engage with Indigenous governments, NWT residents, and "other stakeholders."
"Our Department of Infrastructure will be going flat-out to get this process done," said Schumann, "and have public hearings and whatever we need to do to get this thing shovel-ready."
Wally Schumann at the announcement of $40-million to fund studies on a Slave Geological Province all-season road. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
The NWT's chamber of mines welcomed the funding announcement.
"It’s been a very long time coming," said Tom Hoefer, the chamber's executive director. "In 1998, Queen's University and a think-tank there talked about the Slave Province, talked about two things needed to crack its mineral wealth open – and that was power and infrastructure, the very things that have been announced today."
Money for winter roads
In a separate announcement earlier this week, the federal government's transportation ministry announced $828,300 in funding to better manage winter roads in the three territories.
The money will go to a University of Toronto-led development of a web-based information tool which will provide information on winter roads and trails including "physical characteristics, climate data and detailed maps."
Announcing the money on behalf of federal transport minister Marc Garneau, NWT MP Michael McLeod said that project would improve safety for communities and provide "greater connectivity."