Dene Nation to ‘correct the history books’ in Canol Trail project

Last modified: August 5, 2021 at 1:01pm

While the Sahtu Dene played an important role in helping build the ambitious Canol Pipeline during the Second World War, their efforts have been little documented throughout history. The Dene Nation is hoping to change that with the Canol Trail History Project. 

The federal government announced on Thursday that it will be providing $25,000 to the Dene Nation for the multi-media project that will document and celebrate the contributions of the Dene. 

“The Dene Nation extends our highest respect to the Dene men and women who worked on the Canol Trail WWII efforts. The traditional knowledge of these brave Dene can finally be recognized through this partnership funding,” Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya said in a statement. 


“We are honoured to correct the history books and elevate our Canol Elders living and in memorial. Our Dene Elders stand ready to provide the important, untold stories on the Dene participation in the construction of the Canol Pipeline.”

Yakeleya said the Dene Nation plans to work on commemorative monuments in Norman Wells and at the Canol Trail head. 

“This effort to document and share the history of the Canol Pipeline project from an Indigenous perspective is a key part in reconciliation with Dene people,” Canada’s Minister of Northern Affairs Dan Vandal said in a statement. 

A man uses a tractor to pull heavy equipment as part of the construction of the Canol Road. Photo: NWT Archives/Sam Otto fonds/N-2004-026: 0069

Vandal added that the community-driven project will create economic development opportunities, support tourism, and ensure that Canadians and visitors to the Canol Trail know about the important role the Dene played. 


The Canol Pipeline – or Canadian American Norman Oil Line – was a critical project during the Second World War linking oil fields in Norman Wells to a refinery in Whitehorse and communities in Alaska. It was completed within 22 months. 

The project was conceived following Japan’s occupation of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, which led to concerns that they could cut off coastal shipping of petroleum. According to the Sahtu Renewable Resources Board, between 1942 and 1945, more than $300 million was spent and 30,000 people were hired to construct the Canol pipeline, service road, telephone lines, and other infrastructure. Other sources suggest the price tag was $134 million in 1940s figures. 

The US reclaimed the Aleutians in August 1943, lessening the strategic importance of the pipeline. The project was ultimately abandoned in 1944, just 11 months after it was completed, as the war came to an end. 

A stretch of the Canol road in the 1940s. Photo: NWT Archives/Sam Otto fonds/N-2004-026: 0078

In 1990, what remained of the 355 kilometres service road in the NWT was designated as a National Historic Site. Today, the Canol Heritage Trail, which winds through the Mackenzie Mountains to the Yukon border, is considered one of the longest and toughest hiking trails in North America. 

Remediation work on the trail to reduce environmental and human health risks from the abandoned pipeline, which involved the Sahtu Dene and Métis, began in 2018 and finished in August 2019.  According to the federal government, since the Canol Trail Remediation Working Group was established in 2007, Canada has invested around $26 million in the project.