Trudeau’s Yukon plan: Funding another road to nowhere

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Whitehorse, Yukon over the weekend. Photo: Office of Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada


The past few years have been good for the Canadian road-building industry in the Arctic. In 2011, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper approved a $300 million, 75-mile long highway between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk. “Tuk,” as locals refer to it, sits on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Once the highway opens later this year, it will be the first public road in North Amer ica to the reach the water at the top of the world.

Harper was a Conservative politician who tried to resurrect a strategy of muscular Arctic sovereignty in the Canadian North. His philosophy towards demonstrating Arctic strength was one of “use it or lose it”, manifested in big-ticket projects like the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway and the Canadian High Arctic Research Station, also opening later this year. In this way, he resembled an earlier postwar predecessor, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. That leader, of a different conservative ilk, sought to build “roads to resources” across Canada’s North, too, where he saw the nation’s destiny lying.

After Harper’s fall from favor came Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: young, Liberal (with a capital L), and, based on appearances, a world apart from the rigid Stephen Harper. Where Harper staunchly supported the oil industry and cracked down on climate scientists, Trudeau views himself as an environmentalist, and Canada as a leader in sustainability.

Yet over the weekend, Trudeau took a page out of Harper’s playbook by cozying up to mining interests. The only difference was that he dressed his decision in the language of community development and putting indigenous peoples first. During his first official trip to the Yukon a few days ago, the Liberal Prime Minister announced over CAN $360 million in funding to road improvement projects in the territory. Road access will be enhanced in two areas rich in mining potential: the Dawson Range in central Yukon and the Nahanni Range Road in southeastern Yukon. On paper, these two projects satisfy the government’s aim to build “strategic and trade-enabling infrastructure” across Canada. The federal government will contribute two-thirds of the funding (CAN $274.4 million), while the Yukon territorial government will kick in one-third (CAN $112.8 million).

The roads are being promoted under the Yukon Resource Gateway Project (YRGP), which is all about turning the territory into a world-class mining province. The territorial government’s submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance said that YRGP “holds very little risk and great economic potential.” This statement, however, flies in the face of the Yukon’s severe downturn in recent years, largely due to a mining crunch. In 2015, the territory’s real GDP contracted by 6 percent – the largest of any province or territory in Canada. It has been forecast to shrink another 7.7% this year, again the “bleakest” outlook in Canada.

The Yukon government has spun this downturn on its head, claiming that the current lows in commodity cycles actually offer a good opportunity to sink more money into mining infrastructure. But if anything, one would think this would be an ideal time to diversify away from mining, which accounted for 10% of GDP in 2015. Instead, the government has chosen to sink money into the Nahanni Range Road, which terminates at the Cantung tungsten mine, closed since 2015 (see the route on Google Maps). The head office of the mine’s operator, North American Tungsten, has also been shuttered since 2015. It entered into court-ordered protection after declaring that it could not pay back the $79 million it owed to more than 200 companies and after laying off dozens of employees. Unsurprisingly, government inspectors recently found that the bankrupt, abandoned mine is illegally leaking discharge into surrounding waters and lacks proper erosion controls.

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The Nahanni Range Road after a washout in summer 2012. Photo: Yukon Department of Highways and Public Works.


Given that an abandoned and leaking mine lies at the end of a road that the federal and territorial governments are spending millions to improve, it seems absurd for Trudeau to claim that the road investments will be “an investment in Yukon’s people.” Nobody lives along the road or in the abandoned mining town of Cantung at the end of it, although fishing for Arctic grayling in the area is supposed to be good. The territorial government, too, has claimed that the Yukon Resource Gateway Project will lead to “economic growth and employment opportunities in Yukon First Nations and communities.” But when the mining operators based in distant cities like Vancouver find it all too easy to abandon ship when the going gets tough, they leave a wake of environmental and economic destruction in their trail that hurts local communities most. North American Tungsten isn’t even the only Yukon mining operator to have gone bankrupt in 2015. Yukon Zinc Mine, whose parent company is Chinese-owned, closed the Wolverine Mine that year, too, leaving many local companies high and dry. At a tense meeting in Yellowknife in 2015, creditors called the company’s actions ” “shameful, absolutely shameful.” Yukon Zinc owes one local trucking company, Sidhu Trucking, over half a million dollars.

Mining companies certainly do create jobs when times are good, and they can also help fatten the pocketbooks of locals who aren’t directly employed in digging out the gold, lead, and tungsten. But when mining companies simply declare bankruptcy and leave a wake of environmental destruction and meaningless IOUs to hard-working local companies, the government should think twice about giving them what is essentially a handout in the form of taxpayer-funded road improvements.

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One year ago: Canada Day in the Yukon

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The Maple Leaf blows proudly over Eagle Plains, Yukon: The only services for hundreds of miles around.

The air was thick with the sound of mosquitos buzzing at Engineer Creek, our chosen campsite for the night in the Yukon. It was Canada Day – July 1, 2016. We’d driven close to ten hours to this boggy place to lie our heads from Inuvik, the administrative center of Canada’s Western Arctic. It was here at our starting point, in the 1950s, that the Canadian government decided to plop down a town on the tundra in order to govern the north. The Dempster Highway, the only way out of Inuvik, would come in the decades to follow, linking Inuvik to Canada’s south. Ottawa pretty much dreamed up the town and the 737-kilometer long highway as ways to enhance sovereignty and access northern resources. In effect, Inuvik and the Dempster Highway are symbols of the Canadian state. So what better way to experience Canada Day than to drive along a highway that permanently etched the Canadian state into a territory long inhabited by the Gwich’in people, grizzly bears, wolverines, and moose?

The hours passed as the seven of us plus one fluffy dog increased our distance from Inuvik along the highway. The trees, stunted from growing in unstable, shifting permafrost, became stronger and sturdier as we made our way south. After what must have been about 4 or 5 hours, we stopped in Eagle Plains for a bite to eat and some gas. Everyone has to stop here, since it’s the only gas station around for hundreds of miles.

This being Canada Day, the restaurant’s television was airing a feature on what Canadians thought Canada represented. People of all ethnicities and nationalities, from a Yellowstone Aboriginal woman to a recent arrival to Toronto from Syria, cheerfully said things like “Tolerance!” and “Opportunity!” This segment was followed by a feature that found random Canadians on the street in New York City, not too far from Trump Tower, to ask them what they thought about Donald Trump, who had yet to be elected. Canadians were mostly perplexed and horrified, as they remain today. Canada’s identity, it can be said, in no small part comes from trying to distinguish itself from its southern, more orange neighbor – especially on Canada Day.

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The saloon at Eagle Plains.

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Placemats in the restaurant at Eagle Plains.

As we piled back into the aptly named Yukon SUV and drove south, the mountains reached higher and higher into the sky. The windshield grew thick with the carcasses of mosquitos. We were in the Yukon. “Larger than life” is the territory’s motto, but a woman I met once from Whitehorse couldn’t stand it. Why? Because it made the territory seem vacant and empty, even though First Nations people had lived there for tens of thousands of years. The Bluefish Caves, the oldest known archaeological site in North America, are in the Yukon. Earlier this year, scientists published a paper in the prestigious PLOS One journal estimating human occupation in the Bluefish Caves since 24,000 years ago.

In other words, the Dempster Highway, which opened in the 1970s, has existed for 0.002% of the time since humans are thought to have inhabited the Yukon. But yet, it’s become a symbol of the Canadian North – much more so than, say, the Bluefish Caves. The gravel road has left an indelible imprint on the environmental and cultural landscape of the north. As the Canadian state penetrated north thanks to the highway, so did Red Rose tea, all-dressed and ketchup-flavored potato chips, skidoos (a Canadian invention), and American RVs, which slogged all the way up to Inuvik. (Tim Horton’s has yet to open up a shop in Inuvik, much to the chagrin of many residents). The artificial settlement even attracted Queen Elizabeth II to visit in 1970 on the Centennial of the Northwest Territories. A hundred years prior, Hudson’s Bay Company had transferred the land to Canada. A country born of a company.

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Queen Elizabeth in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, 1970. Photo published in Up Here Magazine.

As an American, celebrating Canada Day in the Yukon felt both familiar and foreign. With my newfound Canadian friends, who were so welcoming and generous, we made s’mores by the side of the Ogilvie River. This seemed pretty much par for the course for summer in the USA, but then I noticed how the back of the graham cracker box had instructions for “biscuits-sandwich à la guimauve.” This is what Quebeckers call the gooey North American treat, as if eating a s’more wasn’t enough of a mouthful. As the night progressed, instead of fireworks lighting up the night, a rainbow unfurled across a soft blue sky around 1:30 am. It was never going to get dark, because we were way up north.

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A rainbow around 1:30 am in the early hours after Canada Day.

We spent the next few days hiking and looking for wildlife in the incredible Tombstone Territorial Park. Just as the Northwest Territories traces its origins to a company, the park paradoxically traces its origins to a highway. The Management Plan for the park from 2009 states,

“In 1974, the federal government identified a park reserve on the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development land maps. The reserve was designed to “protect” the view of Tombstone Mountain from the newly built Dempster Highway.”

Nature was initially preserved, in other words, for the pleasure of tourists and travelers driving by rather than for the benefit of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in who traditionally resided in the area or for the flora and fauna that live there. The park’s location was picked from the top down by state officials looking at a map rather than wandering out in the land. There’s no doubting that the view was a stunner, especially with the sunrise and sunset being only about an hour apart. But there’s something empty feeling that it was chosen based on the automobile’s gaze.

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The view of the Tombstone Mountains from just off the highway.

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The view at night from Goldensides, a trailhead you can easily drive to from the highway.

Thinking back on Canada Day, the country has made huge strides since the 1970s, when the Dempster Highway was put in, when the park reserve was created, and when the Queen visited the Northwest Territories. Some things are still the same. The Dempster Highway is being extended to Tuktoyaktuk, on the Arctic Ocean, and will open later this year if all goes according to plan. A few days ago, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cambridge visited Nunavut to commemorate Canada’s 150 Centenary, drinking tea with elders in Iqaluit.

But in a more progressive direction, Tombstone Territorial Park itself was created as part of the 2004 land claims settlement with the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, who co-manage the park with the Yukon Territorial Government. Further north, two Inuvialuit companies are building the Dempster Highway extension. And recognition of the value of traditional knowledge across Canada is gradually growing.

I came across a quote by Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in elder Percy Henry in an autobiography by Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes. He stated of the Tombstone Range:

“You have everything you want there. There’s all kinds of berries, fish and little animals that live in that country. I was born and raised in that country.”

“That country” refers to Tombstone, not Canada. That country, the land, will always be there in some form or another. While Canada Day this year celebrates the country’s 150th anniversary, it’s worth asking what Canada will be like in another one and a half centuries. Will the Dempster Highway still exist, given the rapidity of climate change? Will graham cracker boxes in Canada still come with s’mores recipes in English and French, or will Quebec finally split off? Answers to these questions are yet unknown, but in any case, at her current rate, Queen Elizabeth II will likely still be the head of state.

Interpretive sign at Tombstone Territorial Park

Whose vast country?

In 2167, Canada will also probably still be viewing the U.S. with equal parts obsession, bemusement, and horror, assuming its unruly southern neighbor does not self-implode in the next three and a half years to 150 years. Driving back from Tombstone to Inuvik, we made the prerequisite stop at Eagle Plains. In the restaurant, CBC News played on the television. It felt like Groundhog Day in a way, as it was now July 4 rather than July 1. The same, but different. Independence Day rather than Canada Day. Just like the difference between Canadian and American Thanksgiving.

Not having slept the night before, I ingested with bleary eyes the statistics that flashed on the screen. Apparently, Americans eat 150 million hot dogs on the Fourth of July. That’s 150 million chien-chauds, hot-dogs, or steamés, if you’re French Canadian. 

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Stunted trees to the left and right of the Dempster Highway, a road built partly on permafrost.

Obituary for an Arctic river

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Dried lake pinnacles in a newly exposed part of Kluane Lake, Yukon, Canada. Photo: Jim Best/University of Illinois

I haven’t been posting a lot lately, and that’s because I’ve had a hectic schedule over the past month with fieldwork in the Canadian Arctic and conferences and talks on the East Coast of the United States. Now, I’m happy to be back in one place for a little while, which allows me some time to sit, gather my thoughts, and reflect on the latest developments in the Arctic.

Much of the Northern news this week has focused on Russia’s opening of a new Arctic military base on Franz Josef Land, a couple hundred miles east of Svalbard. Fox News took the bait and asked in its headline, “A new Cold War in the Arctic? Russia unveils virtual tour of new military base.” I think the headline answers its own question because if we were on track for a new Cold War, I doubt Russia would be allowing web surfers from around the world to explore the base via its dedicated website (in Russian).

A bigger story this week in terms of rapid Arctic change involves the sudden disappearance of a river in the Yukon, located in Canada’s western Arctic, last spring. In a case of what scientists term “river piracy,” climate-driven glacial retreat caused the glacially-fed Slims River (A’ay Chu, in the native language) to stop flowing north into the Bering Sea and instead west into the Gulf of Alaska. Essentially, the lake on top of the Kaskawulsh Glacier that drained into the Slims River changed its outlet to the previously much smaller Kaskawulsh River. Previously, scientists thought that river piracy happened over the course of centuries. In the Yukon, the drying up of the Slims River happened in a mere four days.

This is the first known instance of post-industrial, climactically-driven river reorganization. The fact that it was “geologically instantaneous,” to use the words of the Nature Geoscience paper’s authors, also suggests that the timescale with which we imagine Arctic climate change is woefully misguided. The retreat of Arctic sea ice, for instance, is usually imagined as taking place over years or decades. For an Arctic river to disappear in a matter of days brings “rapid Arctic climate change” to a whole new level. The authors also urge, “Most studies of the effects of climate change on glacial environments deal with enhanced melt or contributions to sea-level rise. We suggest that the effects can be more far reaching.”

This epic landscape transformation in the Yukon may wreak havoc on downstream ecosystems. The authors also reported that by Fall 2016, months after the river rerouting, “massive afternoon dust storms almost daily on the nearly abandoned Slims River floodplain.” In the future, the picturesque, UNESCO World Heritage-designated lake into which the Slims River flows, Kluane Lake, may even seasonally close. The river and lake, which is the Yukon’s largest, are located in Kluane National Park. This is one of the jewels of Canada’s parks system, containing the country’s tallest peak and the world’s largest non-polar ice field. The Kluane First Nations and other northerners who rely on the lake for sustenance and recreation, along with the fish and other marine species that inhabit it, could all be severely impacted as well.

The colours of Kluane Lake #exploreyukon |Photo by @jte__photography #explorecanada

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A healthy Kluane Lake.

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Dust storms in a newly exposed part of Kluane Lake. Photo: Jim Best/University of Illinois

This story of the disappearance of the Slims River hit close to home ago because just a few weeks ago, I was in the Yukon. I didn’t have much time to get out on the land, but I did see some incredible mountains flying in and out of Whitehorse, the territory’s capital. The dramatic landscape seems too large – larger than life, to borrow Travel Yukon’s official slogan for the territory – for humans to be able to seriously alter it. But alas, as scientists, satellite imagery, and fieldwork confirm, we have.

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Descending into Whitehorse. Photo: Mia Bennett, March 2017.

When I was in the Yukon in March, I stayed in the capital, Whitehorse. The city of 23,000 people sits along the Yukon River, which is also glacially fed. I spent a nice evening in late March, when the sun already stays out until close to 9:00 pm, walking along the Millennium Trail that loops around a five-kilometer stretch of the meandering river. The trail turns back towards town at the Whitehorse Hydro Plant, which underscores how rivers and hydropower have become key sources of energy for northern Canada. No rushing river, no spinning turbines, no hydropower.

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Big chunks of ice in front of Whitehorse’s hydropower plant. Photo: Mia Bennett, March 2017.

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SS Klondike, a historic sternwheeler that used to run freight between Whitehorse and Dawson along the Yukon River during the 20th century. Photo: Mia Bennett, March 2017.

Like the Slims River, the Yukon River’s headwaters are located in a glacier (Llewellyn Glacier, to be exact, in British Columbia). If the Yukon River hadn’t existed, much of the territory’s development would likely have never taken place whether in prehistoric or industrial times. Rivers have long provided sustenance for northern First Nations like the Holikachuk and the Gwich’in. In the modern era, salmon fisheries have become an important industry, while rivers have also been used as transportation arteries by steamboats sailing between the Yukon and Alaska. These routes were key for opening up the Canadian and American North to gold seekers and miners. By 1899, 30 steamboats were plying the Yukon River alone.

In the Yukon, rivers aren’t as important as they used to be for industrial transport given that that most of the territory’s communities are now connected by road. Many roadless settlements in the neighboring Northwest Territories rely on barge transport, however. If one of the NWT’s glacially fed rivers were to dry up, goods would have to be flown in at great cost – or else a gravel road would have to be built great distances across unforgiving terrain. The northern communities of Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk are already replacing their ice road, built on the frozen Mackenzie River each year, with an all-weather highway that will open later this year. In the Arctic, rivers of gravel are replacing rivers of ice.

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The winter ice road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada. The ice road sits atop the Mackenzie River. Photo: Mia Bennett, March 2017.

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Work being done in a gravel pit near the Inuvik-Tuk Highway. Photo: Mia Bennett, March 2017.

Rivers also remain key battlefields in the fight between environmentalists and mining interests. The resource-rich Peel Watershed, which is home to four First Nations, is ground zero for this debate in the Yukon at the moment. The ongoing battle is currently being decided by Canada’s Supreme Court, demonstrating how rivers can serve as organizing forces for both preservationists and developers. If a river like the Peel were to suddenly disappear, however, and turns into a dusty watershed unable to support people, flora, or fauna, then maybe mining will have its day. I suppose this is already happening in the Arctic, where, with sea ice retreating, the response appears to be one of, “Bring in the oil rigs!”

So, to those of you who haven’t experienced the glacial thrill of swimming, fishing, kayaking, or simply picnicking aside a river in the Yukon: get there while you can. I’ll never forget the long day I spent on Canada Day Weekend along the Ogilvie River with friends last summer, casting our lines into the cold water, taking a quick dip in a peaceful river bend, making s’mores under the midnight sun, and seeing a rainbow at two in the morning. Let’s hope more of the Arctic’s rivers don’t disappear anytime soon.

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A rainbow at 2am along the Ogilvie River. Photo: Mia Bennett, July 2016.