The new Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway brings new hopes to northern Canadian communities
Former Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker had a vision: to connect Canada from coast to coast to coast. The idea initially took hold in the 1960s but then sat dormant for decades. Fortunately, by the break of the new millennium, the project began to gain traction. Government funding got the ball rolling and hope was growing in the industry—the project eventually broke ground in January 2014. Now, after nearly 60 years in the making, the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway is finally realizing Diefenbaker’s dream by closing out the last 140-kilometer stretch of road infrastructure toward Canada’s northern shores.
The project spanned three construction seasons and implemented winter construction techniques necessary for northern elements. Crews worked 24 hours a day. They worked in complete darkness. They worked in -40 Celsius temperatures.
Moreover, they had to move 5 million cubic meters of material in those conditions! To put that into perspective: think of a pathway that’s one meter high and one meter wide. Now picture that pathway stretching from Vancouver all the way to Montreal.
I travelled from Yellowknife to Inuvik to participate in the official opening of the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway on November 15, 2017. I had been involved with the project since 2012, so I had thought about this day for a long time. But now that the day was here, how would it go? Would this road be everything we hoped and promised it would be? How would people in the community respond to it?
On my flight up to Inuvik, I remembered all the hard work, difficult meetings, accelerated schedules, and late nights. I recalled the various issues—delays, debates, client concerns—that made me feel like this day may never come. Now there I was in a crowded town hall, waiting for the official opening ceremonies to begin. It was both exciting and nerve-racking.
The first part of the ceremony featured several speeches by mayors and other government officials. We were even graced by the presence of her excellency, Governor General Julie Payette. But there was something different at work. The speakers were more passionate than political. You could feel the emotion in their voice. Something special was happening that day. Something historic.
_q_tweetable:I witnessed the realization of all the hard work and determination it took to turn a 60-year dream into reality. I could see it impacting every person there._q_The northern communities traditionally used an ice road to connect Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk each winter, but the new highway meant no more need for that. So, after the speeches, we watched a tribute video that chronicled the final season of the ice road. It was very emotional. The project wasn’t just viewed as a highway—it symbolized the end of seasonal isolation for the Tuktoyaktuk community. It will forever change the lives of the people in the region.
Next up was the ribbon-cutting ceremony, followed by an inaugural convoy to Tuktoyaktuk. We gathered outdoors next to two large excavators that were championed on each side of the new road. After shivering for 10 minutes, the dignitaries arrived. The ribbon was cut, pictures were taken, and we were off.
You could feel the excitement as vehicles lined up. We were all anxious to hit the road.
I rode with engineer Walter Orr and videographer Phillippe Roulston. None of us had experienced the highway from end to end before, so it was very rewarding and special to see. We arrived in the Hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk to greet the frozen Arctic Ocean before entering the final ceremony. Now, I haven’t been to many ceremonies, but the events I have attended were certainly not held in a hockey arena. I thought we’d hear more speeches, eat more food, and head back to Inuvik for an early bedtime.
I was wrong.
The place was full: 500 people were seated and another 400 were standing. There was drumming, there was dancing. There was food and fireworks. But the focal point? A 20-foot-high mural that hung from the roof and wrapped right around the perimeter of the boards. The illustrations, done by a local artist, depicted the historical timeline of the highway. It was breathtakingly beautiful.
Right there in that moment, all the insecurities, doubts, and struggles I experienced during the project melted away. I was elated. I witnessed the realization of all the hard work and determination it took to turn a 60-year dream into reality. I could see it impacting every person there. The members of Parliament were astonished, the northern leaders were delighted, and the contractors were thankful their work was valued as it was.
The new highway has changed the community of Tuktoyaktuk forever. Not only will they no longer be isolated but now it will be cheaper to trade and travel there. It will bring economic opportunities there. It will make the community healthier and stronger than ever before.
I built my engineering career in northern Canada to achieve one main goal: to improve the quality of life for the people who live in those remote communities. In my more than 20 years with Stantec, the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway is the best manifestation of my goal to date.
About the Author
Warren McLeod is a lifetime resident of the North and has spent his entire professional career working as a cold-regions consulting engineer. He’s worked primarily on projects based in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Russia.More Content by Warren McLeod