Dempster Highway

In the late 1950s, potentially rich deposits of hydrocarbons in the Beaufort Delta and Eagle Plains areas of the Northwest Territories and Yukon, respectively, catalyzed the development of the Dempster Highway. This was the first highway into the Arctic region of Canada, and was part of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker's Roads to Resources program (1957), aimed at providing a transportation network for new resource development and towns. The Dempster highway became the largest, most ambitious, and costly of such projects.

Begun in 1959, the highway was not completed until 1979, at a total cost of $103 million. By 1961, 116 km (72 miles) of road had been constructed, but the work stopped because of poor oil exploration results. Construction did not resume for ten years until oil was discovered in the Beaufort Sea and an all-weather road was required to service exploration there. The Dempster Highway opened to the public in 1979.

Originally referred to as the Eagle Plain road, the highway was later named after Royal Canadian Mounted Police Corporal W.J.D. Dempster. The highway follows a trail traditionally used by the Gwich'in people (and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police patrols) between the Yukon and Peel River systems. The highway crosses rugged, striking landscapes, including the valley of the North Klondike River, the Ogilvie and Richardson Mountains, expanses of Arctic tundra, and the Mackenzie Delta.

Dempster Highway crosses the Arctic Circle at 405 km (252 miles), and the Yukon/Northwest Territories border at 465 km (289 miles). There are two ferry crossings, at the Peel River and at the Mackenzie and Arctic Red Rivers. It is gravel-surfaced and subject to travel advisories and closures due to weather. The highway closes for two to three weeks in spring and late fall when river crossings break and freeze up. In winter, ice bridges replace the ferries.

The first roads to be built in the territories were mostly local, and river barging carried most freight. In the winter of 1954-1955, a private winter tractor trail was built along this route for Conwest Exploration from near Dawson to Eagle Plain and the Peel Plateau areas. The federal government recognized the potential need for all-weather roads and potential demand from exploration companies, but allocated no funds to it. Extensive road planning did not start until 1953, after the creation of the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources, with a mandate to plan long-term northern development. By 1955, building the Dempster Highway was part of long-term strategy, but remained a low priority.

Several routes were tested, but planners chose the Flat Creek to Eagle Plain route based on distance, available road materials, alignment and grade, the need for bridges, the immediate needs of oil development in Eagle Plain, and Dawson's economic stimulation. Construction began from Dawson to Eagle Plain, with the plan to finish over several years.

External influences led to the starting and stopping of construction over two decades. Certain sections occasionally took priority because of planned uses for resource exploration; alternative routes were temporarily constructed (such as Carmacks to Cyprus Anvil Mine at Faro and the Mackenzie Highway (later stopped)). Other influences affecting construction included the change of prime ministers and shifting political priorities, poor oil and gas showings at Eagle Plain, and the awareness of rising costs.

Public concerns regarding Dempster Highway reflected the importance of the area for hunting, fishing and trapping, and possible effects on caribou. These concerns for wildlife, in particular the caribou, included overhunting and deflection or blockage of migration, changes in distribution, increased stress, calving too far south of the ideal habitat, increased susceptibility to disease, predation, and starvation. The Porcupine caribou herd was estimated at 110,000 in the late 1970s; it comprised one of the largest herds in the world, ranging over the northern half of Yukon and parts of northeast Alaska. The Dempster Highway crosses their winter range and migration route. Other species of concern included Dall's sheep, grizzly bears, significant populations of raptors such as golden and bald eagles, peregrine falcons and gyrfalcons, and fish. A number of caribou specialists recommended closing the road between October and May. Effective, legally enforceable, politically acceptable rules controlling caribou hunting were difficult to develop. The territorial governments were unable to regulate native hunting unless it involved an endangered species, but the Porcupine caribou were not endangered. A five-mile "no-hunting" corridor each side of the center of the highway did not apply to aboriginal hunters.

By 1987, a variety of regulations had been installed with different rules for native and nonnative hunters, Yukon and Northwest Territories hunters, different stretches of highway, different seasons, and different species. The Porcupine Caribou Management Board (PCMB) undertook consultations about public concerns such as dangerous hunting practices, overharvesting, and the highway's interference with herd movements.

Presently, the herd is estimated at 130,000. The hunting regulations along the Dempster recommended by the PCMB and introduced by the Yukon government in 1999 include a 500-m no-caribou hunting "safety" corridor on both sides of the highway as well as a one-week closure to allow the herd leaders to pass undeterred, in accordance with traditional ecological knowledge about caribou herd movement. Public education and an aboriginal game guardian help to encourage implementation of the new rules.

The highway's projected impact on communities (principally and in varying degrees Aklavik, Fort McPherson, Inuvik, and Old Crow) included loss of leadership, increased hardships for the aged, increased access to alcohol and drugs, and increased dependency on store-bought food. Based on perceived impacts of other highway developments in the North, the public voiced concerns about induced demographic, environmental, economic, and social changes that would lead to a transformation of the native way of life, family life and values, as well as the sense of personal and community identity. Critics believed that the highway represented an importation of southern ideas, cultural values, and material consumption; these new ideas about housing, community infrastructure, and spending might negatively affect the native population. The opening of the Ft. Simpson highway access, for instance, correlated in critics' minds to increased assault, neglect, violence, and crime.

Steps were taken to reduce the impact of highway development and operation, such as limiting areas used for routes or operations, minimizing ground disturbance, disposing of debris and garbage by burning or burying, filling creek crossings with snow rather than soil or debris, storing fuel so as to prevent pollution of streams, enclosing fuel storage tanks with impermeable dykes, removing fuel barrels at the end of operations, prohibiting explosives within 100 ft of streams, avoiding unnecessary disturbance of wildlife, and limiting rifles to one per operation. Later permits increased requirements such as screening airstrips, camps, borrow pits, waste piles from public view; avoiding construction in streambeds during times of fish migration; specified drainage and land stabilization measures; and notifying the Land Use Inspector in case of spills.

Economic impacts of the highway were expected to include a better, lower cost supply of goods and materials, increased tourist traffic, infrastructure, and stimulated development. The nonnative community generally favored the anticipated economic benefits of the highway. On the other hand, critics of the plan feared an influx of transients or job seekers from the

South that would strain local jobs and services. Economic development might also widen the differences between natives and nonnatives. In hindsight, several mines were developed in the North that were possibly aided or accelerated by road access, including the Pine Point Mine, the Faro Mine, and the Tungsten Mine. However, in 1965, the Territorial Roads Policy stated that construction of northern highways like the Dempster highway could not be justified on economic grounds; hence, governments have since stopped relying on economic arguments for development.

Heather Myers

See also Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Further Reading

Berger, Thomas R., Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland: The Report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services, c.1977 Bone, Robert, Geography of the Canadian North: Issues and

Challenges, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1992 MacLeod, W.G., "The Dempster Hwy." In Northern Transitions: Northern Resource and Land Use Policy Study, Volume I, edited by E.B. Peterson & J.B. Wright, Ottawa: Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, 1978


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