When the Tłı̨chǫ Highway opened this month, many called it a boon for tourism and the economy. Others expressed trepidation. Work is under way to achieve those goals and address concerns.
The two-lane, 97-km gravel road – also known as Highway 9 – connects Whatì to the NWT highway system year-round, replacing a winter road that used to be the only alternative to air travel for a few months every year.
Drew Williams, a spokesperson for the territorial Department of Industry, Tourism, and Investment, said the NWT government is working with the Tłı̨chǫ and Whatì governments to take advantage of the increased access.
That includes work with the Tłı̨chǫ Investment Corporation to add a campground to the North Arm Territorial Park on Highway 3; hosting workshops and training sessions on tourism, mining, and local procurement; and providing funding for small-scale infrastructure like wayfinding signs and bear-proof garbage bins.
The Tłı̨chǫ Government has prioritized an access road to a stunning set of twin falls outside Whatì and a day-use area at the site. Williams said the territory had encouraged the Tłı̨chǫ Government to apply to the GNWT’s community tourism infrastructure contribution program for funding.
Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly, however, has criticized the NWT government for failing to directly commit funds for campground planning or business development in Whatì.
O’Reilly pointed out the recently passed capital budget for 2022-2023 does not dedicate funding for tourism or recreation opportunities in the community, like an access road to the falls, parking, a tourism centre, or local arts and crafts development.
“It’s kind-of like what happened with the Inuvik to Tuk highway all over again,” he said, “where we build a road, we don’t support a community to take advantage of it.
“It speaks to some really poor planning on the part of the GNWT in not supporting communities properly.”
O’Reilly added he recently learned the highway does not extend all the way to Whatì but is instead connected to the community by what he described as a “moose trail” that will require an additional $9 million to upgrade.
“It really does raise questions about what kind of planning was done for this road,” he said. “Why was this really being done? I guess that’s a question that still remains relatively unanswered, but I do have some concerns when public funds are expended to facilitate private development.”
One of the reasons the Tłı̨chǫ Highway was built was to provide access to the proposed Nico mine, a cobalt, gold, bismuth, and copper project outside Whatì. Fortune Minerals signed an agreement with the Tłı̨chǫ Government in 2019 to construct a 50-km access road from the all-season highway to the mine site.
Robin Goad, president and chief executive of Fortune, said he hopes the mine will begin commercial operations by the end of 2024 or early 2025.
The company plans to announce a new site for its refinery in Alberta or Saskatchewan in the coming weeks, he said. Fortune will then have to update a feasibility study and financing before construction of the spur road and mine begins.
Goad said the Nico project will help to meet demand for lithium-ion batteries, electric vehicles, and portable electronics. He said the mine will reduce reliance on the Democratic Republic of Congo and China for cobalt.
Fortune also aims to be the largest producer of bismuth in the world, which Goad said is a non-toxic replacement for lead.
“Our metals are critical for this transition that’s taking place into new technologies and growing the green economy,” he said.
The project will also benefit the NWT, Goad said.
“We are the most important private-sector component of the economy of the Northwest Territories,” he said of the mining industry.
“We hire the most Indigenous people, we are responsible for the lion’s share of contracting opportunities from northern businesses and from Indigenous-owned businesses.
“The mining industry is essential to the quality of life for almost everybody in the Northwest Territories.”
Fortune signed a socio-economic agreement with the NWT government in 2019 to “maximize northern and Indigenous employment, training, business opportunities and education” for residents in the territory.
At the time, the CBC reported the Tłı̨chǫ Government boycotted the signing ceremony for that document over concerns about the deal. Goad said the company is in talks to enter into a participation agreement with the Tłı̨chǫ Government.
The Tłı̨chǫ Government did not respond to Cabin Radio’s questions about business development.
Beyond economic opportunities, there are concerns the Tłı̨chǫ Highway could lead to more traffic accidents, increased access to drugs and alcohol, and negative impacts on harvesting.
RCMP detachments in Behchokǫ̀ and Whatì are responsible for policing portions of the Tłı̨chǫ Highway.
A recent report on RCMP resources indicated that even before the highway opened, 12 additional officers were needed in Behchokǫ̀ to meet policing needs. A new RCMP detachment is being built in Whatì but there are no plans to increase the number of officers stationed there.
NWT RCMP spokesperson Marie York-Condon said officers in the region will monitor calls for service to determine if any changes are needed.
“The Tłı̨chǫ all-season road is a new and exciting addition to the NWT road system. However, like any other road, the RCMP urge users to drive safely, prepare for remote/weather conditions and notify friends and family of departing on one end and arriving on the other,” she stated in an email.
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, including mood and anxiety disorders as well as alcohol and drug disorders.
MLA O’Reilly said he is concerned the highway opened before a boreal caribou range plan and wildlife management and monitoring plan were approved. He said habitat protection is particularly important as boreal caribou are listed as a threatened species in Canada and the NWT.
“Part of the issue with boreal caribou is that there’s been so much habitat disturbance across the country that there’s not many of those critters left any more,” he said. “The GNWT is obligated to do more to protect the woodland or boreal caribou and the Tłı̨chǫ all-season road goes right through some of their habitat.”
Environment minister Shane Thompson said the NWT government is working closely with the Tłı̨chǫ Government on environmental monitoring and has appointed a renewable resources officer based in Whatì.
The minister added the territory is supporting the Tłı̨chǫ Government to develop a voluntary harvesting, monitoring, and reporting program for Indigenous harvesters that reduces the negative impact on caribou. He said his department is not currently considering harvesting limits.
“It’s very much about collaboration and working together,” Thompson said. “We feel very comfortable and very happy how we’ve been working together as the TASR [Tłı̨chǫ all-season road] was being built.”
A different Christmas
Tammy Steinwand-Dechambeault is the director of the Tłı̨chǫ Government’s department of culture and lands protection. She said six wildlife monitors work in teams of two to look out for animals as well as any safety concerns on the highway. They meet regularly with harvesters and Elders.
Steinwand-Dechambeault said safety on the highway is a big concern for the Tłı̨chǫ Government and there is a lack of funding from the territory to support emergency services on the route.
In regulatory filings, the NWT government stated there were “local capacity challenges” in Behchokǫ̀ and Whatı̀. The Department of Municipal and Community Affairs said RCMP would be notified in the event of an accident on the highway and 9-1-1 dispatchers would contact the closest community with response capacity.
Overall, Steinwand-Dechambeault said, people in the Tłı̨chǫ region are happy the highway is open, especially during the holiday season.
“They have access to the rest of the world, which is really nice,” she said. “I’m hearing there’s a lot of nice Christmas spirit in Whatı̀, houses being decorated and preparations for Christmas, which is a little bit different this year compared to previous years.”
Taylor Summerfield, a Behchokǫ̀-based renewable resources officer for the NWT’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said roughly 20 officers take turns patrolling the area of the highway for illegal harvesters while educating people about respectful harvesting practices.
So far, he said, there have been no incidents of illegal harvesting along the highway.
“We know the majority of people are harvesting with respect but, unfortunately, we’ve seen wastage and abandoned meat, abandoned animals in the recent past in other areas of the North Slave,” he said.
Summerfield said only people with permission from the Tłı̨chǫ Government are allowed to harvest on Tłı̨chǫ private lands, with signage indicating the boundary around kilometre 76 of the highway.
Hunting bison in the North Slave is prohibited unless hunters have a tag, he added, and the lottery for this fiscal year’s tags has already concluded.
Anyone involved in a collision with big game must report the incident to the department within 24 hours, either in person or by calling 1-866-762-2437.