Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Follow the dream road to Nunavut

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FLIN FLON -- Niki Ashton has an answer to the argument a highway to link northern Manitoba and Nunavut fails the cost-benefit analysis.

"If we look to the past, the Trans-Canada railway didn't make economic sense when it was first proposed," says Ashton, MP of the vast northern Manitoba riding of Churchill, "but the entire West was able to grow and prosper because of this one railway."

It would be Pollyannaish to think a highway is all that separates Manitoba's far north and the territory of Nunavut from affluence.

According to CBC, a 2012 case study found a road from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, to Sundance, Man., would generate less than half the financial payback of its $1.2-billion price tag.

Moreover, although proponents assert the road would pass by 20-plus mineral exploration projects, the viability of those ventures has not been conclusively demonstrated.

Canada is full of overhyped mines-in-waiting that never materialize, so trusting in mineral projects to make a Manitoba-Nunavut highway pay for itself is foolhardy.

But that's besides the point. The real question is, when do ethics outweigh economics?

Every day, governments make infrastructure investments to meet basic needs of Canadians without concern for bureaucratic bean counters.

If all we did was blindly put economics at a premium, it's doubtful Thompson would have a pain clinic, St. Theresa Point a hockey arena or The Pas a 24-hour ER -- all priceless assets.

Still, the Manitoba-Nunavut highway is especially debatable because of its 10-figure tab.

The gap between Rankin Inlet and Sundance is a vast expanse of Canadian Shield lakes and nothingness. Perusing it on a map, one can't help but imagine what a protracted, lonely drive this would be.

The 1,100-kilometre highway would connect communities whose combined population is fewer than 10,000 people.

By that math, the road would cost more than $120,000 per direct beneficiary.

However, such a stringent calculation does not factor in (rapid) population growth, nor the potential for the highway as a foundation for future roads connecting other communities.

And what about all those taxpayer dollars expended to deliver necessities to this government-dependent region?

As the Free Press observed last year, the highway, along with an accompanying power line, "would save hundreds of millions of dollars annually in freight and fuel costs."

Then there's the rather astonishing fact that Canada's newest territory -- with 35,591 people and counting -- is not yet accessible by road.

Frank Busch, an aboriginal author and businessman originally from South Indian Lake in northern Manitoba, believes "a moral responsibility" comes into play.

"Having parts of our country that are completely disconnected and do not share in the benefit of being Canadian after 150 years is inexcusable," says Busch, who writes about aboriginal issues for Troy Media.

But Busch, now residing in B.C., is pessimistic about the highway's chances.

Undeterred, Ashton has had meetings to discuss the concept with supportive First Nations, Métis and municipal leaders from across the north.

The governments of Nunavut and Manitoba both back the concept, she notes, signalling the need for Ottawa to "become an active player around the table."

In the movie industry, there's a name for what's happening to the Manitoba-Nunavut highway: development hell. It's where a project is discussed year after year without ever getting off the ground.

If by some miracle Nunavut, Manitoba and Ottawa approved funding tomorrow, the road would take an estimated 15 years to complete.

By then, how much more populated will the almost entirely road-less Nunavut, the second-fastest growing province or territory in Canada, be?

How much will social conditions and unemployment have worsened? And how much more sought-after will the diamonds and other minerals of the far north be? Ashton, for one, won't let go of her somewhat grandiose image of the highway.

"It would be a nation-building project, finally linking all of Canada's provinces and territories into our national road network," she says.

She's right. But are officials who find the dollars for more politically visible investments listening?

Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 19, 2013 A15

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