The federal government is investing $102.5 million in the Northwest Territories’ plan to build a Mackenzie Valley Highway from the Arctic coast to Wrigley and the south.

That federal contribution will be joined by $37.5 million in territorial money for a total of $140 million, which will launch two construction projects related to the highway and fund planning for future phases.

The territory has been trying to get this project off the ground for years, but lacks the money to finance its full vision of a road from Inuvik, through Norman Wells and Tulita, to the Dehcho and beyond.

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Instead, the NWT has been picking off small sections of its grander highway plan where it can – an example being the all-season road from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, which was opened to traffic last year with the help of a separate $200 million federal grant.

Construction for the phases announced on Wednesday is due to start in 2021. The announcement still falls significantly short of the projected full cost of the highway, which is greater than $700 million.

The territory says it is now working on a business case for turning the highway project into a public-private partnership.

‘Now is the time’

“This funding will support several key phases of the longer-term project,” said Carolyn Bennett, the federal minister of northern affairs, who was in Yellowknife to announce her government’s contribution.

“These improvements to the Mackenzie Valley Highway will create a reliable connection to remote communities and decrease the cost of living,” she continued.

“The investment we’ve just announced will reduce the potential cost of goods for many families in the North … and promote long-term prosperity for the Mackenzie Valley.”

Premier Bob McLeod began his remarks in the NWT legislature’s Great Hall by placing a portrait of the late Cece Hodgson-McCauley – former president of the Norman Wells Land Corporation and Inuvik Dene Band chief – by his podium.

“She was a tireless and vocal advocate for connecting the people of the North to one another and the rest of Canada through the realization of an all-weather road project,” he said. Hodgson-McCauley passed away in March at the age of 95.

McLeod continued: “Now is the time for these infrastructure investments in the Northwest Territories. It is these kinds of investments that will help us tap into the opportunities that will bring good middle-class jobs to residents and our communities.

“These projects allow existing industries to plan for a future in the NWT and allow new sectors of our economy, like tourism, a real chance to contribute to the health and wellbeing of our residents.”

Charles McNeely, representing the Sahtu Secretariat, said the Mackenzie Valley Highway was “much-needed” and “would serve to improve the wellbeing of all of our residents.”

Wally Schumann, the territory’s infrastructure minister, said the NWT’s Liberal MP Michael McLeod had been “instrumental” in securing the $100M federal package.

Schumann, in a nod to the large funding hole still remaining, said completing the highway will “rely on further partnership with our federal colleagues.”

Construction stages

NWT leaders want to build the highway because, they say, it will mean some 400 jobs for residents during the life of the project; will reduce the cost of living for communities along the route; increase tourism; and boost the chances of natural gas exploration and development in the Mackenzie Valley picking up.

More: GNWT’s Mackenzie Valley Highway project website

The territory has previously said there would be several key stages in the construction of a Mackenzie Valley Highway, alongside an environmental assessment: the construction of a bridge over the Great Bear River, an access road from Wrigley to Mount Gaudet, then two construction phases connecting the two ends.

The funding announced on Wednesday will allow the river bridge and the Mount Gaudet access road to be built. In addition, the territory says there will be money for environmental and planning studies to “inform final routing and design for the eventual construction of the all-weather highway.”

The river bridge, in Tulita, is seen by the territory as critical for the resilience of the winter road and community resupply.

In November last year, the territory made its latest pitch to the federal government – applying under the federal National Trade Corridors Fund for two projects, the Mackenzie Valley Highway and a separate highway through the Slave Geological Province north and east of Yellowknife.

The Slave Geological Province road was initially denied any federal support, though the territory says it will try again in a second round of funding later this year.