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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ARCUS Arctic Research Seminar in D.C. this Friday

A gravel pit along the Inuvik-Tuk Highway. Photo: Mia Bennett/March 2017.

A gravel pit along the Inuvik-Tuk Highway. Photo: Mia Bennett, March 2017.

This Friday, April 14, I’ll be giving an Arctic research seminar at ARCUS (the Arctic Research Consortium of the U.S.) in Washington, D.C. It’ll be a lunchtime talk from 12:00 pm – 1:00 pm. The title is, “Development on Ice: Social and Economic Impacts of Arctic Transportation Infrastructure.” In my seminar, I’ll discuss the mechanisms connecting northern communities to regional and global transportation networks. I’ll share insights from my research and fieldwork throughout the Arctic, including in northeast Russia and Canada’s Northwest Territories. I’ll also include some updates based on my trip at the end of March to Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk, where construction has nearly wrapped up on the first public highway in North America to the Arctic Ocean. This highway will replace the ice road that connects the two communities together every winter. So if you want to drive on the ice to the frozen Arctic Ocean, this month is your last chance.

More information about the ARCUS seminar, including a link to registration, is available here. For those who can’t attend in person, the webinar will also be streamed online.

Seminar location
ARCUS D.C. Office
1201 New York Avenue
NW Washington D.C.

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The last ice road from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk. Photo: Mia Bennett, March 2017.

Fly me to the moon: Prudhoe Bay from above

Deadhorse, Alaska

Deadhorse, Alaska. Photo: Mia Bennett

Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. The place where polar bears butt heads with the petroleum industry – literally. “If a bear’s spotted, work’s usually called off for the day,” a man in Barrow, 200 miles to the west, told me. Oil workers try to scare away the bear – sometimes a polar bear, sometimes a grizzly – and condition it so that it doesn’t come back in search of food.


On my recent trip to Alaska, I didn’t have the chance to stop in bear-battled Prudhoe or nearby Deadhorse, which houses the airport, lodging, and store for the oil workers. Deadhorse is also the end of the Dalton Highway, which starts north of Fairbanks some 400-odd miles to the south. I did, however, get to fly in and out of Prudhoe Bay airport, which in winter appears to miraculously emerge out of the white tundra.

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Ascending out of Anchorage over the Talkeetna Mountains.

Flying from Anchorage, our airplane soared over the Talkeetna Mountains and the Alaska Range. I dozed off soon after the snow-capped peaks transitioned into the relatively flat white plains of the Yukon-Tanana Uplands. When I woke up an hour later, the packed Alaska Airlines flight was descending into Deadhorse, laden with cargo for the winter construction season. The seats that would normally take up the front half of the airplane are replaced with a cargo hold on the airline’s 737-400 Combi planes. Winter is the big construction season in Prudhoe Bay because it’s the only time of year when the ground is solid and snow-covered. This permits driving on the tundra without permanently damaging it.

Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay Airport, Alaska.

Sitting on the tarmac of the moon. Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay Airport. Photo: Mia Bennett

I looked at the view from my window seat and felt like we were descending onto another planet. It was a clear day and the sun bounced off the spindly network of chrome-colored pipes that criss-cross the North Slope. Straight, unwavering pipelines cut across meandering frozen rivers. All of the infrastructure out here is built on manmade gravel pads, for nothing can sit directly on top of the shifting permafrost, which thaws and refreezes every year. In this part of the world, gravel is almost more valuable than oil. The tiny rocks we take for granted down south are in short supply up north. No construction or excavation can happen without gravel.

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Straight pipelines intersect with meandering rivers in Prudhoe Bay in winter. Photo: Mia Bennett

The gray gravel pads are all but invisible in winter, however, and instead, the hundreds of miles of pipelines seem to stretch magically across the landscape. It is beautiful in its own way. Human ingenuity (or idiocy, depending on your point of view) has transformed an area that was once primarily used for local subsistence by the Inupiat people into a export-oriented resource frontier by dredging up the ancient seabed underlying the North Slope.

Prudhoe Bay is North America’s largest oil field. The extent of this industrial moonscape blew me away. It measures some 213,543 acres, or approximately 15 by 40 miles. That’s more than double the size of New York City and still significantly larger than Los Angeles. We flew over the oil field for a good long while before the platforms and pipelines faded into the west. Out here in mid-winter, it was impossible to tell where the tundra turned into the ocean, for both were frozen solid.

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Taking off again from Prudhoe Bay airport, headed east towards Barrow.

“In space we read time,” reflects German historian Karl Schlögel. Above Prudhoe Bay, I felt as if I was witnessing modernity in all its silver-plated excesses. The sight was all the more jarring having come from Anchorage, where I had wandered down the old main street and read about the bustling heydey of a past boom centered around the construction of the Alaska Railway. Faded murals and maps of the “Last Frontier” were the chief reminders of this wealthy era in the city’s history. Up in Prudhoe, what will this extreme edge of the rush for Alaska’s resources look like when the oil runs dry? Abandoned pipelines and platforms might then no longer epitomize a future-forward modernity, but rather a rusty past.

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The main drag in Anchorage, where curio shops have replaced saloons and even a Japanese restaurant that bustled during the construction of the Alaska Railway.