Arctic village residents share hopes, fears for future with opening of new highway
Published Thursday, October 12, 2017 10:25PM EDT
Last Updated Friday, October 13, 2017 8:57AM EDT
Eileen Jacobson was born and raised in Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories.
At 60 years old, she works as a tour guide and one of only two taxi drivers in the tiny hamlet of approximately 900.
Nestled on the shores of the Arctic Ocean with unforgiving temperatures that dip below -40 C in the winter, the community is isolated from the rest of the country. The only way to access Tuktoyaktuk is by boat, bush plane or winter ice road.
“It is tough to live up here,” Jacobson said.
There are only two stores in Tuktoyaktuk and, because of its remote location, transporting goods, such as groceries from the south, is a difficult undertaking. As such, the cost of living can be incredibly high for the hamlet’s residents. For example, the price for a bag of apples can be as much as $20.
People in Tuk hope highway will make it easier to transport supplies and ultimately reduce food prices.Bag of apples can cost 20 dollars pic.twitter.com/3uWBnxIQC5— Melanie Nagy (@MelanieNagyCTV) October 12, 2017
But change is on the horizon. The only home Jacobson has ever known is about to be opened up to the outside world.
The near-completion of an all-season road stretching south across the Arctic tundra from Tuktoyaktuk to the Town of Inuvik brings with it optimism for future economic prosperity as well as concern for what’s to come.
The new 137-kilometre Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway is expected to officially open on Nov. 15, after almost four years of construction.
CTV News’ Melanie Nagy was given exclusive access to preview the $299 million road and speak with locals about their hopes and fears for the project.
“With the road opening, a lot of people will be coming in,” Jacobson said. “Maybe more tourism will come year-round and hopefully the grocery prices go down, price of gas, everything might go down.”
The prospect of increased tourism, particularly in the summer, is appealing for Jacobson’s work as a tour guide and taxi driver.
She hopes the easier access provided by the road will attract visitors to the area and boost the economy. And she’s not alone.
James Pokiak runs a B&B in Tuktoyaktuk with his wife. Before opening his business, he made a living as a hunter in the region. With the opening of the new road, Pokiak anticipates progress and potential job growth.
“I think it’s an opportunity for lots of people,” he said. “I think it’s going to be good.”
On a personal level, the increased tourism may mean more bookings for his B&B, which he has already started expanding.
Views of Tuktoyaktuk, N.W. T. (Melanie Nagy / CTV News)
Although tourism is being touted as a future boon to Tuktoyaktuk’s struggling economy, the original intention for the highway was for greater access to natural resources in the Beaufort Sea.
During Stephen Harper’s tenure, the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway or “road to resources” as it has been called, was approved as a way to help develop the oil and gas sector in the resource-rich area. That is, until Prime Minister Justin Trudeau quashed those plans with his government’s decision to ban offshore oil and gas licenses in the Arctic last year.
Darrel Nasogaluak, the mayor of Tuktoyaktuk, said he was disappointed by the Trudeau government’s move and believes the highway’s economic potential is limited now.
“He [Trudeau] did mention that with one door closing another door would open but we have yet to hear what our other opportunities would be. Tourism is not a replacement for the oil industry,” Nasogaluak said. “The main reason for the highway has been taken away from us.”
The start of the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. (Melanie Nagy / CTV News)
Along with some skepticism about the road’s economic impact, some residents expressed unease about the possibility of more drugs and alcohol being brought into the community.
“That’s one of the sad parts of the road opening, but hopefully the good will overcome the bad,” Jacobson said.
Emmanuel Adam, a pastor and community elder, acknowledged there was some worry about increased crime, but said they have always dealt with the problem of alcohol and drugs in the village long before the highway’s construction.
“People are very strong here too and can overcome different things like that,” he said. “Tuk [Tuktoyaktuk] will always carry on.”
Despite some hesitation, locals in the small hamlet appeared ready for the future.
“It is going to be a nice change,” Adam said. “We have been isolated certain months of the year, but now we are going to be totally connected.”
With a report from CTV News’ Melanie Nagy