It’s long been a dream deferred – a highway that would open the stranded core of the Northwest Territories. By Brent Reaney
With a pair of cookie jars, a variety of teapots, and chairs that don’t match, Cece McCauley’s kitchen in tiny Norman Wells, Northwest Territories, could be any grandmother’s. She even makes a grandmotherly moose-and-veggie stew. And when she serves up a deep, delicious bowl of it, she looks just like what she is: a little Métis lady who’s spent all of her 87 years in the North. But forget her kitchen, her stew, her spindly frame, her dark hair and easy smile. McCauley is a firebrand. Ask about any topic and she strikes back. Canada in Afghanistan? “If the Russians couldn’t do it with a million troops, what are we doing in there?” She buys The Globe and Mail and Edmonton Journal daily, and if the television’s on, she’s watching the news. In her home office, a ragged pile of news clippings sit waiting to be filed. She says she’d like to see Canada get rid of the Queen and join the United States (“We’re sitting ducks. We’re like a bunch of mud hens, just sitting here waiting to be plucked!”), go on a speaking tour to share her knowledge of Northern history, write a three-volume autobiography and put the Northwest Territories back under federal jurisdiction.
Of course, if you live in the NWT, you may already know all this. For 25 years, McCauley (her first name is pronounced “cease,” short for Cecille, which she hates) has been using her self-described “poison pen” to sound off in a weekly column for the territory-wide News/North newspaper. From her kitchen table, a thesaurus and dictionary by her side, she scribbles longhand and faxes the pages to Yellowknife. She writes as she talks, exclamation marks included, providing readers with little nuggets of wisdom and advice. She also takes advantage of her Métis status to criticize all sides of Northern problems – on one hand berating territorial politicians for not educating aboriginal people (“the government should be hung for what they’ve done to the North!”) while on the other taking swipes at aboriginal leaders for failing to lead (“Houseplants, I call them, just comfortable to make a little money, to heck with the little people”).
But among all of McCauley’s white-hot opinions, it’s when she talks about putting a highway up the Mackenzie Valley that her dark eyes really start blazing. “We need the highway, gee whiz! People are getting frustrated!” Her hands wave and slap the table and her Northern drawl rises in pitch. “There might be a few who say, ‘Oh, we don’t need the highway! But it seems like the ones that say it have a job in the government or they’re a leader or they have good positions in the native organizations and they fly around. I told this one guy, ‘Oh yeah, you don’t want a highway. You don’t care because you go to meetings. Stay in hotels. Fly all over. You can buy things cheap.”
McCauley could go on, and probably will. The need for a road into the Sahtu – the NWT’s central Mackenzie Valley region – is her cause célèbre, a subject she’s harped on in nearly all of her columns for a decade, and for which she’s spent months at a time lobbying officials in Ottawa. In support of the highway she even started an activist group, called Women Warriors of the Sahtu, of which she is, of course, the chief warrior. And it possibly isn’t for naught. Though the project still lacks backing from the federal government, McCauley’s calls for a Mackenzie Valley Highway may well be gaining traction.
For centuries, the Mackenzie Valley has been the NWT’s main transportation route. For aboriginals, explorers and fur traders, it was the corridor for canoeing, dog-sledding, visiting, trading and following wild game. Building a road up the valley isn’t a new idea. It dates back
more than 50 years. Construction actually started in the 1970s, but was halted by aboriginal opposition. It’s sat on the backburner ever since. The old plans envision a route largely hugging the Mackenzie River, running north from Wrigley – where the NWT’s gravel, two-lane Highway 1 ends – through the heart of the NWT, joining up with the Dempster Highway just south of Inuvik. (From Inuvik, the plans also show a highway continuing north to Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean.) The highway would provide a “road out” for the 2,000-odd people who live in the Sahtu towns of Tulita, Norman Wells and Fort Good Hope.
Already, of course, the Mackenzie Valley is busy with traffic. Scheduled flights visit every community, and in the summer, the river hums with barges and motorboats. In winter, a makeshift road of snow and ice carries groceries and fuel into the region while allowing locals to drive out to shop and see family. But the winter road is available at most three months a year. Supporters say replacing it with a permanent highway would bring down the high cost of living in the Sahtu and help develop the region’s oil-and-gas industry, not to mention bringing road-construction and maintenance jobs. They also say the road would boost tourism, not just in the Sahtu but across the North, by creating a stunning loop up through the NWT and back down the Dempster into the Yukon.
Opponents, however, worry a road would bring other opportunities – for alcohol and drugs to reach tiny backwoods towns, and for the accelerated erosion of traditional lifestyles. Also worrisome is the road’s monster price: One estimate suggests it could cost up to $2-billion.
Nobody’s going to convince Cece McCauley the Mackenzie Valley Highway is a bad idea. In her white Toyota pickup we cruise Mackenzie Drive, Norman Wells’ main drag, which stretches for just eight kilometres. It’s a length McCauley would like to see extended fifty-fold. “We’ve got to wake people up,” she says, shaking her fist. “We’ve got to start developing this North!” She points out the town’s pair of grocery stores, the few restaurants, the liquor store and the bank – facilities making “The Wells,” as locals call it, the hub of the four small aboriginal communities surrounding it. Flanked by low-lying mountains, the town grew out of an oil discovery on the Mackenzie River almost a century ago. By NWT standards, the town’s an anomaly: a largely white, working-class centre of industry and government, drawing labour not only from down south but the rest of the region. In many ways, it could be any blue-collar town in Canada.
But for nine months a year it’s accessible only by plane. Thanks to that isolation, locals like McCauley shell out nearly $10 for two litres of milk and $1,000 for a round-trip flight to Yellowknife. Almost all of the nearly 1,000 residents will tell you getting a simple two-lane road would help lower those costs and bring jobs and money into the region. It’s a dream people here have had since the 1970s.
That’s when construction began on what many thought would be a road running up from Fort Simpson (then the end of Highway 1) all the way to Inuvik. But elders in the tiny, traditional aboriginal community of Wrigley, about halfway between The Wells and Simpson, had worries about the outside world headed their way. They feared a road would bring booze and drugs and thought everything was moving too quickly. “We looked at Fort Providence or Hay River and Fort Simpson, all these newcomer people coming in and they expanded too fast,” says Gabe Hardisty, who at that time was Wrigley’s chief. “They wanted us to stop the highway, so we did stop the highway” – at least for a while. In 1994, the road finally made it into town. Locals say the expected ills came with it, but also benefits such as cheaper food and fuel. Opinion is split on the road’s merits, but Hardisty – now an elder himself -- says people have learned to deal with it.
Today, Wrigley remains the end of Highway 1, but Hardisty thinks it’s time to push it farther north. Most of the NWT’s aboriginal organizations seem to agree, passing resolutions in support of the highway in recent years. There’s even a majority-aboriginal-owned company eager to bid on construction if the federal or territorial government ever puts out a call for tenders. But the Mackenzie Aboriginal Corp. says the project is going to be expensive. Its preliminary numbers show building a road from Wrigley to Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic coast could cost up to $2-billion. On the flipside, the company’s analysis says the road would significantly lengthen the season for the Sahtu’s most promising industry, oil-and-gas development, speeding up drilling and providing the federal government with about $3.4-billion in additional royalties over 25 years.
This sort of case for a highway isn’t new to the North. It’s reminiscent of former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s “Roads to Resources” plan of the 1950s, in which he proposed a number of roads in the North to spur mining. While his original scheme didn’t include a highway up the Mackenzie Valley (though it was included a few years later), he did call for a road to the Port Radium mine on eastern Great Bear Lake. It never happened, possibly because the mine was mothballed two years later. That’s why roads-to-resources are generally a mistake, says Ken Coates, dean of arts at Ontario’s University of Waterloo. Coates writes extensively on the North and recommends putting people before resources. “What you need is a situation where a government says, ‘As part of our commitment to the people of Northern Canada and in order to build social stability and economic viability, we’re going to connect up this area to the highway grid and we’re going to do that as a matter of national purpose,’” he says.
But another historian, who wrote Building Canada, a book on large-scale infrastructure projects and their effect on the Canadian psyche, says no matter how strongly Northerners support the road, the idea would be a tough sell in southern Canada. Jonathan Vance says that’s because of the value urbanites place on the idea of traditional cultures untouched by roads and unsullied by mass culture. In a fight over whether to build the highway, he says, “It’s going to be whoever is able to sell their perception of what the impact is going to be – whether it’s people who think it’s going to be positive or people who think it’s going to be negative. And I think Northern communities are not going to have the loudest voice. I think it’s going to be interest groups in southern Canada, whether for or against, that have access to media and have access to large propaganda budgets. They are the ones who are going to carry the debate.”
Unsurprisingly, such a notion doesn’t sit well with folks in Norman Wells, who have little time for outsiders weighing in on what they see as a local issue. Businessman Larry Wallace says southerners should focus on the “problems you have down there.” He runs the Rayuka Inn and its popular coffee shop, is a past president of the town’s chamber of commerce and was here when the highway was stopped in the ‘70s. He’s been lobbying on and off for the road ever since. Today, he’s philosophical about the lack of progress. “My father used to say, when I had a serious problem, ‘What does it matter 10 years from now?’ Well, we’re three ‘10 years from now’ and it hasn’t changed, so you better not sweat it,” he says. “I just think for me, it would be progress. It would be a benefit for everybody.”
Back at her kitchen table, Cece McCauley couldn’t agree more. And with the recent economic downturn, there’s been hope the highway might become a government-sponsored infrastructure project – a way for Canada to spend its way back to prosperity. Still, it seems like a long shot, and would take years of engineering and environmental work before construction could begin. And if that actually does happen? “I’ll find something else to fight over probably,” says McCauley. “But I’ll probably find a way to raise money to keep the highway in the best shape.”
Brent Reaney is an associate editor at Up Here.