Eager travellers on Tuesday became the first to drive the new Tłı̨chǫ Highway that connects Whatì to the NWT road network. The community hopes the road will create opportunities and lower the cost of living.
Highway 9 opened to traffic at 10am on Tuesday. Previously, travel to and from Whatì – home to around 530 people – was restricted to flights or a winter ice road.
Kalvin Lafferty, from Behchokǫ̀, helped to build the two-lane, 97-km gravel road and was at its southern entrance on Tuesday morning to help control the flow of traffic.
“It’s pretty exciting. It’s history being made,” he said. “It’s the first time an all-season road has been made to one of our outlying communities. Hopefully we can make another one to Gamètì.”
Phoebe Rabesca was among those who drove the Tłı̨chǫ Highway from Behchokǫ̀. The road begins at kilometre 196 of Highway 3, just under 50 km south of Behchokǫ̀.
“This is the first one where Tłı̨chǫ are able to see a road built to their community,” she said of the new road.
“I’m just happy to be here.”
The new highway “means a lot,” Rabesca said, from opportunities for economic development and lower prices for goods and services, to an easier way to visit family year-round.
Newly elected Tłı̨chǫ Grand Chief Jackson Lafferty was at the highway’s entrance as the barriers were removed. He said the occasion had been 30 years in the making and the result of hard work from many Elders and community members.
“Excitement was in the air along the highway,” he said. “It’s very exciting. It’s a big day for us.”
Lafferty said the new highway is essential because climate change is threatening the viability of many ice roads as freeze-up happens later in the year. People worry about safety and the thickness of the ice, he said.
With the Tłı̨chǫ Highway now open, the connected winter roads to Gamètì and Wekweètì are expected to stay open longer each winter.
While such an occasion in the NWT would normally be met with fanfare, a large celebration has been put on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Still, the opening of the new all-season road did not go unmarked.
At a cabin around six kilometres into the highway, Tłı̨chǫ Grand Chief Lafferty, Behchokǫ̀ Chief Clifford Daniels, and a handful of others gathered for a small ceremony to pray for the road and the safety of travellers.
The cabin was built by Bobby Migwi. His family has long kept a trapline and hauled wood in an area where his great grandfather made a trail decades ago.
Migwi explained in Tłı̨chǫ Yatıì that he asked the chiefs to join him and pray at a spiritual tree outside his cabin. It was the only tree to survive a fire in 2014 that burned down the surrounding forest and the family’s previous cabin.
Today, the tree is adorned with a cross, rosary beads, and a photo of Migwi’s late father, Joseph, who was a respected Elder.
For his family, Migwi said, the new highway will mean easier access to the cabin. Previously he had to pay hundreds of dollars every year for an access road. Whenever the lights are on, Migwi said, travellers are welcome to stop in for a visit and a cup of tea.
From the other side of the highway, Whatì Chief Alfonz Nitsiza hit the road early to reach a meeting in Yellowknife. He said the new highway will help to connect families with relatives living in Whatì and Behchokǫ̀.
“For some of these people that want to see their grandkids, it’s easier for them to come here instead of using the plane, which costs too much,” he said.
Nitsiza said the road also means Whatì residents will be able to get their vehicles serviced at any time of year or make other appointments.
The new road is also expected bring tourists to Whatì. The Tłı̨chǫ Government plans to improve an access road to a stunning set of twin falls outside the community, one of the biggest attractions in the area.
Jonathan Vandal, office administrator of the hotel in Whatì, said the new highway has already resulted in more bookings. First, the hotel accommodated workers while the highway was being built. Now, travellers are beginning to visit the community.
“The next two weeks are solidly booked, so we’re getting a lot of business,” he said.
Vandal said the “number-one draw” for tourists in Whatì is Lac La Martre, which presents an opportunity for community members to launch related tourism services. The lake is the third-largest in the NWT and fish are abundant.
“Everyone that comes to Whatì for the first time comments on the lake,” he said. “They want to know if we can point them in the direction of anybody that could take them out onto the lake, either for a tour or for fishing.”
Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly recently chastised the territorial government on this point, arguing the GNWT had failed to commit funds for campground planning or business development in Whatì.
“You’d think we would have learned some lessons from the Inuvik to Tuk Highway,” he told the legislature on Monday.
Vandal pointed to other economic opportunities for the community as a result of the Tłı̨chǫ Highway, like the proposed NICO mine, one of the reasons why the road was given the green light.
“It opens up possibilities for maybe working abroad but still coming back here for the weekend and such,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of opportunities in a small fly-in community like this. It can make it very difficult for young people to find work or find something to do.”
Vandal said he looks forward to the cost of living in Whatì going down, now that goods won’t have to be flown in. He said two blade steaks currently cost around $26 and he’s particularly hoping to see that drop.
While there is much to celebrate about the new highway, some community members are concerned about safety on the highway and increased access to drugs and alcohol.
“That’s always going to be an issue. It is an issue once the ice road is open as well,” Vandal said. “We’re expecting an influx but hopefully they can get things under control.”
Chief Nitsiza said his government has been educating residents about drinking responsibly while Grand Chief Lafferty reminded commuters to follow speed limits.
RCMP officers were patrolling Whatì and the highway on Tuesday. Vandal said there are plans to increase the number of officers in the community and expand the detachment.
The territorial Department of Health and Social Services has pledged to work with local governments to monitor the highway’s impact on residents’ health and well-being over the next 10 years.
Yellowknife MLA O’Reilly recently raised concerns in the legislature about the potential impacts of the highway on the environment and wildlife. He pointed out an interim boreal caribou range plan and a wildlife management and monitoring plan for the highway have yet to be approved, and said the impacts on woodland caribou had not been assessed.
Environment minister Shane Thompson said wildlife-related measures for the opening of the highway had been completed and that work on the boreal caribou range plan would happen next year. He said there had been no indication sustainable harvest levels were being exceeded and a renewable resource officer in Whatì would increase harvesting monitoring along the road.
The minister added the territorial government was working with the Tłı̨chǫ Government, which had written to the territorial government about several other concerns.
The Tłı̨chǫ Government did not respond to a request for comment regarding the nature of those concerns.
Ollie Williams contributed reporting.