Manitoba's senior federal cabinet minister is beating the drum for a cost-effective ground link between Nunavut and Churchill to develop the North and further assert Canadian sovereignty in the region.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews would like to see the construction of a winter road linking Churchill to Rankin Inlet.
He said such a seasonal road could boost mining development in northern Canada and breathe "new life" into Manitoba's northern port.
"I could see the whole North opening up and really becoming integrated into the overall Canadian infrastructure and the economy. This is very important for us, not just from an economic point of view but from a sovereignty point of view," Toews told reporters after a speech to the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce Friday.
For years, the federal, provincial and territorial governments have explored the idea of building an all-weather road from Gillam to Nunavut via Churchill. A 2005 study put the cost at $1.2 billion.
Toews said while a permanent road may be prohibitively expensive now, a much more affordable option would be to build a winter road. The initial construction cost from Churchill to Rankin Inlet would be in the neighbourhood of $25 million, while annual maintenance might be about $12 million, he said.
Winter roads are built atop frozen lakes, wetlands and ground. Access depends on the weather. The life of a winter road can vary from several weeks to several months, depending on the temperature.
"The Arctic is Canada's, and building roads to the North and unifying the North with the rest of Canada by physical infrastructure, I think, will be tremendous. The cost is relatively small. The return is huge."
Toews said his cabinet colleague, Leona Aglukkaq, in her role as regional minister for the North, is "very supportive" of the idea, as are territorial leaders in Nunavut and the Manitoba government.
Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation Minister Steve Ashton confirmed Friday the two levels of government have discussed the winter road idea.
Ashton applauded Toews for promoting it, saying the federal minister's vision is "very consistent" with the province's own thinking.
"It's been very much the Manitoba approach to connect communities by winter road and eventually by all-weather road," he said, referring to developments on the east side of Lake Winnipeg and elsewhere.
"They are dollar for dollar one of the most cost-effective transportation initiatives you can bring into place," Ashton said of winter roads.
The road link would provide Nunavut communities, such as Arviat and Rankin Inlet, along the western shore of Hudson Bay with cheaper goods in the winter as the items wouldn't have to be flown in. In summer, goods travelling by rail to Churchill are then transferred to barges that serve the Kivalliq region.
A winter road would also provide more business for the Hudson Bay Railway Co., which connects Churchill with the south, said Brad Chase, president of OmniTRAX Canada, the company that owns the rail line and the port itself. "It's something we're quite excited about," he said Friday.
John Hrominchuk Jr., president of the Churchill Chamber of Commerce, said the winter road would be "a great start to opening the North." It would also provide off-season work for port workers and others, he said.
The Manitoba Chambers of Commerce has recommended construction of an all-weather road from Gillam to Churchill and on to Nunavut.
Graham Starmer, the organization's president, called a winter road linking Churchill and Rankin Inlet "a great first step." But governments should take the idea further and also build a winter-road link between Churchill and Gillam so trucks could travel from southern highways directly to Nunavut and back again.
Right now, the proposed winter road is just an idea. A route would still have to be determined and funding would have to be committed.
However, Starmer said it's significant that the Manitoba, federal and Nunavut governments all appear to be in favour of the project. "I think the stars are aligning," he said Friday.