Inuvik's airport is seen in a 2022 satellite image.
The federal government will inject cash into a stalled project to extend the runway at Inuvik’s Mike Zubko Airport.
In March, the territorial government said work had not progressed because the budget – initially set at $150 million, paid for by the Department of National Defence – had come in far higher than expected.
Lesa Semmler, the MLA for Inuvik Twin Lakes, said the gap was $40 million.
The territory said at the time it was “evaluating options that will allow this important project to meet its five-year schedule within available budgets.”
Federal infrastructure minister Dominic LeBlanc now says Ottawa will find money to help address what he characterized as a cost overrun and get the project back on track.
“The Inuvik Airport represents, for the Department of National Defence and Transport Canada, a key piece of infrastructure that we need to develop,” LeBlanc told Cabin Radio this week.
“We will make good on those commitments. That work will be done in a way that is not unreasonable to the territorial government.
“We have to find the right way to help them. It’s not fair for the territory to be left holding these costs, their financial capacity is very limited. And we want to see, frankly, projects and builds undertaken here in the territory.”
Whether Canada will cover all or merely some of the extra $40 million was not specified. Nor is it clear to what timeline work will progress, after concern expressed in the legislature that a vital window in which to build above permafrost was being missed.
LeBlanc said Ottawa was obliged to help bridge the financial gap because increasing supply-chain costs meant the initial federal grant no longer stretched as far as was intended.
“The difference that the territorial government would have to absorb prevents them from doing other projects that they want,” he said.
Arctic security ‘requires investment’
The minister also made clear that doing so would help to address fears that Canada is losing ground in the realm of Arctic security.
Extending Inuvik’s runway from 6,000 ft to 9,000 ft is primarily seen as an Arctic sovereignty measure. A longer runway will allow the Royal Canadian Air Force to operate a wider range of aircraft from the town, which is considered a key “forward operating location.”
The project, announced in 2019, has assumed fresh importance in recent months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sparked concern about Moscow’s Arctic ambitions. Experts say President Vladimir Putin’s actions appear increasingly irrational and unpredictable, leaving open the possibility of Russian activity in the Far North.
Arctic sovereignty “requires an investment,” LeBlanc said, referring to past Russian attempts to “deliberately provoke a sovereignty challenge” by overflying the Canadian Arctic or sending ships through the Northwest Passage.
“I mean, it’s the old adage, you use it or you lose it,” said the minister. “If we’re not occupying the territory in a coherent and a responsible way, we’re obviously more vulnerable to security challenges.
“I think our country is still grappling with the illegal and the horrible war that Russia perpetrated in Ukraine. What does that mean for our Arctic sovereignty?”
In that light, LeBlanc said, he and NWT ministers had this week talked about the Inuvik Airport project “at considerable length.”
Premier Caroline Cochrane and her Yukon and Nunavut counterparts held a virtual meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last month to discuss northern security.
Cochrane left that meeting saying it had given her “confidence that the Prime Minister understands there needs to be more attention given to the North, which includes more investment.”