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Slave Geological Province road planning, aerial surveys funded $5M

The GNWT and federal government are spending $5.1-million toward aerial surveys of the Slave Geological Province and planning an all-season road from Yellowknife to the Nunavut border.

Map provided in a Nov. 13, 2016 return to oral questions displays the proposed Slave Geological Province Corridor route and caribou habitat. photo courtesy of GNWT
Map provided in a Nov. 13, 2016 return to oral questions displays the proposed Slave Geological Province Corridor route and caribou habitat.
photo courtesy of GNWT

The proposed road would replace winter roads with year-round access, cutting costs for NWT diamond mines, facilitating resource exploration and development and connect an area with mineral potential to southern roadways, said Infrastructure Minister Wally Schumann, March 4.

"This investment will increase access to the world-class mineral deposits located in the region and lower the cost of mineral exploration and development," stated Schumann in a news release. "It also supports our efforts to advance our understanding of the full potential of this resource-rich region and provide publicly available data that will stimulate development and provide economic opportunities to residents and businesses of the NWT.” 

Construction on the southern-most portion of the proposed 413-kilometre two-lane gravel road could start within five years. Mapping out mineral potential in the Slave Geological Province will contribute to economic growth for both the NWT and all of Canada, said Schumann. 

The GNWT is juggling several desired infrastructure projects that need significant federal support to be completed. They include the proposed Taltson hydrolink, the replacement of the aging Frank Channel bridge and now the planning stages of the proposed all-weather road to Nunavut.

The GNWT’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) is simultaneously completing a range plan for the Bathurst Caribou herd whose range falls within the proposed access road.

The federal government will cover 75 per cent of the planning and surveying investment with the GNWT contributing the remaining 25 through a budget expropriation. The surveys will be used for mapping projects to help mining exploration companies “target their activity,” states a news release from the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency (CanNor)

CanNor is investing $2.7 million to develop the Slave Geological Province road and the GNWT will contribute $678,000 for a total investment of $3.3 million. CanNor is putting $2.4 million into the exploration development initiative with a GNWT contribution of $289,000. Industry partners are also contributing $749,000 for a total of $3.4 million.

Planning and environmental studies are the first stage before replacing the Frank Channel Bridge near Behchoko, and constructing three segments of proposed road: Highway 4 to Lockhart Lake, up to Lac de Gras diamond mines and onward to the Nunavut border.

Kevin O’Reilly, MLA for Frame Lake questioned the government’s ability to make substantial contributions to the $540 million proposed project, as the GNWT approaches its federal borrowing limit.  

The GNWT must compete with other infrastructure demands, including the replacement of the Frank Channel bridge outside Behchoko, which has been identified as a “safety hazard,” he said.

The GNWT Department of Infrastructure made applications through federal infrastructure programs and the Northern Trade Corridors Fund toward a new bridge. Costs are estimated to be between $60 million to $70 million. Securing funding for the road access corridor is Schumann’s “preferred priority over the Frank Channel bridge,” he said in the legislative assembly last month.

The GNWT will explore other avenues to federally fund the bridge replacement if the application is unsuccessful, he said.

A road to economic development

Monday’s funding announcement is positive news for existing mines and future mines that require road access to haul out materials, said Schumann.

The road would open access for development of small base metals and gold deposits in the Cameron Rive/ Beaulieu River Greenstone belt and large, lower grade gold deposits at Courageous Lake, which ITI states hold $15-billion in resource value.

“Diamonds you can take out in a suitcase or gold you can take out in a suitcase or on an airplane," Schumann said. "To start doing these mineral deposits like iron that are more of a mineral-based situation you’ve got to have an all-access road to make them economically viable projects."

In April 2018 the federal government denied the GNWT’s request for funding under Transport Canada's National Trade Corridors Fund to construct the Slave Geological Province Road. The $2-billion fund sets $400-million aside for transportation infrastructure in the three territories. The infrastructure department is applying for funding for the Frank Channel bridge and the Slave Geological Province corridor.

The NWT and Nunavut Chamber of Mines routinely cites a lack of infrastructure as stifling exploration and development in the North with estimated costs for capital expenditure 2.4 times higher and six times higher for exploration.

The Slave Geological Project rivals Ontario and Quebec’s Abitibi greenstone belt, said Schumann. The historical value of mineral production from mines within the 213,000 square kilometres of the Slave Geological Province is $45-billion, according to the Department of Infrastructure website.

Caribou recovery a concern

O’Reilly questioned the feasibility of the project considering that Bathurst caribou are rapidly declining. There is also no approved range plan, management plan or recovery strategy for the herd, he added. 

“In the absence of any serious work on protecting the Bathurst caribou herd, why are we promoting development in the range?” said O’Reilly in an interview.

Internationally, Canada and NWT governments oppose development in the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, he said. The NWT, Yukon and federal governments commissioned their own report on possible impacts of development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to form a position on plans to lease portions of coastal Alaska.

Meanwhile the proposed all-season road in the NWT represents a “significant development” while the Bathurst herd is in a “very distressed condition,” said O’Reilly.

“People have to decide do we want an all weather road into the Slave Geological Province or do we want a caribou herd?” he said.
“There is no new money in the 2019-20 budget for the caribou crisis, yet there is always money for roads."

Supplementary appropriation 

The GNWT contribution to the $5-million investment would come from a supplementary appropriation. MLAs will debate the 2019-20 budget for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (March 6). In the 2018-2019 budget, ENR was one of three departments taking cuts, with reductions of more than $3-million.

“Where is the supplementary appropriation for the caribou crisis?” said O’Reilly.

The mining sector has stated that protected or conservation areas and land under interim withdrawal have triggered a decline in prospecting and exploration across the range, the draft Bathurst caribou range plan states.

“For most community members, caribou has long been their most valuable ‘resource’ or ‘commodity,’” the range plan states.

The range plan finds that a large increase in exploration activity following the 1993 discovery of diamonds in the Lac des Gras region of the Slave Geological Province was the “original source of the cumulative effects concerns for Bathurst caribou as voiced by community members, regulators and scientists.”

The discovery launched a dramatic increase in mineral exploration in the central NWT and Kitikmeot region of Nunavut, states a supporting report of land-use scenarios.

While exploration has declined since the 1990s, there is continued “concern” that another “rush” in staking could create disturbances. Online staking, a feature being introduced in the incoming Mineral Resources Act, promises to cut down on aircraft-related sensory disturbances for caribou, the range plan states.

The Bathurst Caribou Range Plan Working Group estimates that approximately 5.6 per cent or 21,898 square kilometres of the Bathurst range is affected by direct and indirect human disturbance, with the highest levels of disturbance in the NWT in the central winter range where all permanent settlement and highways are located and in the central tundra near operating diamond mines.

ENR has started discussions on possible impacts of a proposed road through caribou habitat. Once the project enters the environmental assessment process, more research and feedback from Indigenous groups and organizations will arise, said Joe Dragon, Deputy Minister of Environment and Natural Resources in the legislative assembly Feb. 23.