The route of a proposed new railway from Alaska to Alberta cuts through Acho Dene Koe First Nation territory in the Dehcho. The First Nation says it’s studying the possible economic impact.
At the moment, the only railway in the NWT is a line running from Hay River to the south. The new line, dubbed A2A Rail, is in the early stages of planning.
If built, it is forecast to cost around $22 billion and speed up movement of goods between Asia and North America.
The project has some early approvals in place. For example, this week US President Donald Trump gave the proposed line a Presidential Border Crossing Permit.
That does not mean any track can yet be laid. Much more permitting is required first, including from the NWT’s regulators if the route remains the same.
The proposed route, as shown in a graphic from A2A Rail’s website, runs through a section of the Dehcho.
At the moment, the route takes the railway 2,570 kilometres from Delta Junction, Alaska to Fort McKay, Alberta, where it connects to the rest of the Canadian rail network. Some pre-existing Alaskan tracks will also be used.
The exact route is still to be finalized.
While the project’s focus is on the speed with which continents trade commodities, the line is also expected to accept passengers. The project’s backers expect to create 28,000 jobs and forecast a combined $60-billion bump to the GDP of the relevant regions by 2040: Alaska, Alberta, Yukon, and the NWT.
A2A Rail hopes to be completely operational by 2026.
Consultation in the NWT
The Acho Dene Koe First Nation in Fort Liard, known as ADKFN, says it has been consulted three times by A2A Rail in the past 18 months as the project develops.
The railway, as planned, would run past Fort Liard. Exactly how close to the community it would be is not clear.
Boyd Clark, the First Nation’s band manager, said community consultation will play a large role in determining the First Nation’s response as the project moves forward.
“It’s very much in its infancy in terms of that part of things,” Clark said of the proposal.
“The fact that this company acknowledged and reached out to ADKFN early on is positive, in the fact they acknowledge they have to build a relationship with the Indigenous governments.”
The president of A2A Rail Canada is JP Gladu, an Anishinaabe man from northern Ontario.
“We’re tired, communities are tired of being asked at the last second to engage,” Gladu told Cabin Radio.
“The importance of engaging early and often … is working with communities to inform them of what the opportunities are.”
Economy weighed against environment
Previously president of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, Gladu believes his company’s project offers economic opportunities and jobs for Canadian communities.
He said 49 percent of the project’s equity is available for communities to purchase, as A2A Rail wants to encourage Indigenous ownership of the railway.
Clark said developing a railway in the Fort Liard region would be consistent with a land-use plan being drawn up by the First Nation.
“To have a project of this magnitude to be considered, with the potential of economic return, is encouraging. It has to be looked at from that standpoint,” he said.
“Any economic return on any project has to be weighed against its negative impact environmentally, and there has to be a balance between the two.”
Boyd said the First Nation has asked A2A Rail whether the company can collaborate with the Prairie Creek Mine, a zinc, lead, and silver mine being developed just north of Acho Dene Koe territory. Transporting those materials by rail could reduce the number of trucks that must pass through the region.
Gladu said A2A Rail is willing to examine that option once more approvals are in place.
If, ultimately, any First Nation decides it does not want the railway to cross its traditional territory, Gladu said the company can look at alternatives.
“If a community is opposed to it, it’s a tough conversation but we may have to go around,” he said.
“We want to know what suits their interests from a traditional practice and their knowledge of the land, so we will tweak as we go along.
“This doesn’t work as well unless governments, industry, and communities are all on the same page working together to get this work done.”