A diagram of Inuvik's airport runway. The yellow dots mark proposed 1,500-ft extensions at either end.
Work to extend the runway at Inuvik’s airport has been paused, reportedly because the expected cost for the project is now some $40 million beyond the initial budget.
The delay comes amid renewed scrutiny of Canada’s Arctic defence capabilities following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Premier Caroline Cochrane this week called for more focus on the NWT’s “unique border with Russia.”
Extending Inuvik’s runway from 6,000 ft to 9,000 ft is primarily seen as an Arctic sovereignty measure, allowing the Royal Canadian Air Force to operate a wider range of aircraft from the town, which is considered a key “forward operating location.”
The Department of National Defence had agreed to foot the $150-million expected bill for the work. However, Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler this week told the legislature the project has been halted.
“It is my understanding that they have stopped work on this project because a detailed engineering budget … is approximately $40 million higher than the government’s initial costing,” Semmler said.
“It is also my understanding that they are refusing to allow an extremely time-sensitive phase of this work to be completed this spring … keeping the project timeline on track, protecting Indigenous obligations and local employment.
“It is clear we cannot have any confidence in the safety and security of our region, as our government won’t do anything to ensure the safety and security of our country.”
The time-sensitive work specified by Semmler is the digging of a trench originally scheduled to take place before the coming spring thaw. Semmler said the project would be delayed by a year if that work did not happen immediately, a statement infrastructure minister Diane Archie confirmed.
Archie said on Monday a meeting was due that afternoon between Department of Infrastructure officials, the Department of National Defence and the contractor to discuss the project’s problems.
Asked how that meeting went, the Department of Infrastructure – responding after first publication of this article – did not provide a direct answer.
Spokesperson Sonia Idir said by email: “The GNWT is committed to working with the project contractors, including negotiating and evaluating options that will allow this important project to meet its five-year schedule within available budgets, thereby enabling local jobs and employment in the region.
“Discussions with DND and the contractors are ongoing in this regard.”
“We’ll be providing an update on the joint venture once we have concurred on a way forward,” Archie, who also serves as the Inuvik Boot Lake MLA, told the legislature.
“The project came in significantly over budget – more than what the GNWT estimates and more than a third-party estimate that used information collected by regional contractors.
“Inuvik is my community as well and this is something we push at the premier’s level, to have that discussion with National Defence so we don’t lose the time. I’m hoping for a favourable outcome as a result of those meetings.”
Earlier that day, Premier Cochrane had risen in the legislature to emphasize the increasing strategic importance of the Arctic and call for more northern infrastructure investment from the federal government.
Cochrane and her territorial counterparts in Nunavut and Yukon requested a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about Arctic defence at the onset of war in Ukraine. Instead, Cochrane said on Monday, she has now met with federal defence minister Anita Anand and northern affairs minister Dan Vandal.
Cochrane tied her domestic agenda into the notion of Arctic sovereignty, saying northern security was “not just about a military presence.”
“It is also about building strong, resilient communities through significant investment in critical infrastructure like roads, telecommunications and energy,” she said.
“It also means strong healthcare and education systems and the elimination of gaps between north and south. Decisions about the North must be made by northerners. After all, northerners have the biggest stake in a strong and sustainable Arctic.”