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Canada highway throws lifeline to Arctic hamlet

Melinda TROCHU
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The new Canadian highway is expected to open up tourism to the remote Arctic region -- bringing new jobs

The new Canadian highway is expected to open up tourism to the remote Arctic region -- bringing new jobs (AFP Photo/Melinda TROCHU)

Tuktoyaktuk (Canada) (AFP) - Life can be tough in Tuktoyaktuk, a Canadian hamlet on the Arctic Ocean where one in three are jobless.

But things are looking up thanks to a new highway linking the tiny community to the rest of the country and bringing with it the promise of tourism and jobs.

Long hoped for but widely seen as a far-fetched idea, the highway was feted this week at a ribbon-cutting ceremony where fireworks lit up the faces of locals and dignitaries -- tightly wrapped in hats and scarves to brave the extreme sub-freezing temperatures.

"It's really overwhelming today. We're happy and people are excited," said Tuktoyaktuk resident Ella Jean Nogasak, her red anorak visible from afar against the snow.

The 72-year-old has waited a long, long time for year-round road access to her community, which lies well north of the Arctic Circle.

After years of procrastination, Canada's former Conservative government in 2014 finally gave a green light for what was dubbed a "road of resources," intended as a conduit for firms wanting to tap oil and gas riches believed to be hidden beneath the Beaufort Sea.

That prospect dimmed a year ago when, with construction already underway, the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau imposed a five-year moratorium on drilling in the Arctic.

But residents of the isolated hamlet still welcome the 138-kilometer (85-mile) gravel road from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, which they hope will end their winter reliance on costly air transport for food, supplies, equipment and travel.

It is also expected to bring tourists to the far north.

In Tuktoyaktuk, the unemployment rate is more than 30 percent, and living conditions for the 930 inhabitants are difficult.

"You see, we don't have a hotel, we have limited stores, and limited opportunities within the community," said Tianna Gordon-Ruben, who hopes the road will bring down food prices and help create jobs in the community.

- 'Our doors are open' -

About 10 meters (30 feet) wide, the continent's northernmost route consists in some places of a four-meter high embankment atop the permafrost -- a thick subsurface layer of soil that remains frozen throughout the year.

Project manager Dean Ahmet describes building the Can$300 million (US$235 million) road through a region pocked by lakes and rivers as no less than a feat of engineering.

The permafrost was too soft in summer to support heavy construction equipment, so most of the construction -- involving just over 600 workers -- had to be done during the seven or eight winter months.

"It was a challenge because we were working in very extreme temperatures ranging from -15 to -57 (Celsius, 5 to -70 Fahrenheit), 24 hours a day," he told AFP.

At the opening ceremony, Bob McLeod, premier of the Northwest Territories, paid tribute to the crews who worked day and night to complete the project.

In the frozen tundra, a speed limit of 70 kilometers per hour has been set to keep drivers from slipping into a snowy ditch.

Darrel Nasogaluak, the mayor of Tuktoyaktuk, touted this new lifeline to the south with speeches, handshakes, a few words for everyone, hoping it will lead to a better quality of life for northern residents.

To celebrate, there was a community feast consisting of traditional Inuit game and seafood including caribou and muktuk (beluga whale skin and blubber).

"You know, we're going to have better access to health care, better access to healthier (and) fresher foods," Nasogaluak told shoppers at the only grocery store in Tuktoyaktuk, where a liter of milk costs almost twice as much as in Vancouver, 3,800 kilometers to the south.

With a bright sun forecast in a few months, will the tourists flock to Tuktoyaktuk? Nasogaluak hopes so.

"I'd just like to invite everybody in Canada, southern Canada and all over the world to come share our rich culture and incredible scenery.

"Our doors are open, you know, we're willing to share."