Ice has prevented the final sealift barge from reaching Cambridge Bay and Kugluktuk, and alternative delivery options and compensation are being examined.
The barge, under the Government of the Northwest Territories' Marine Transportation Services (MTS) division, was delayed a few times in September. It was expected to arrive in early October, but increasing ice thwarted those plans, causing a scramble in the Kitikmeot.
The consequences are serious. Among the essentials are chlorine for municipal water supplies, oil for vehicle fleets and critical supplies for businesses that, in some cases, have spent much of their available funds and may be forced to close without the delivery, said Cynthia Ene, executive director of the Kitikmeot Chamber of Commerce.
"You can imagine the strain on the private sector, but (also) on our communities and infrastructure at large," she said. "It's devastating to a family, to a business."
Following a meeting held Wednesday evening in Cambridge Bay, which involved upwards of 40 individuals and business representatives, a spreadsheet was created and a minimum of $3 million in ordered goods was accounted for, Ene noted. There are others who were unable to participate in the meeting and have yet to contribute their totals, she added.
The Chamber has contacted a legal firm to review the terms of the sealift contracts, which are rather straightforward, according to Ene. Legal action can hopefully be avoided, she said.
People in the Kitikmeot are wondering why the barge was delayed, but answers weren't forthcoming early Thursday despite a GNWT news release Wednesday afternoon indicating that the government is working with those affected to find solutions, including an airlift of essential goods.
"Businesses have been calling me, having a hard time getting a hold of anyone at MTS. We're just hoping for better communication," Ene said. "It's really disheartening... Direct and honest communication (with the GNWT) is so key – that different staff not be giving different bits of information – but that all streams of information coming out be cohesive and truthful."
A Department of Infrastructure spokesperson said a government official would be available to answer media questions Thursday, but that never happened.
Kugluktuk Mayor Ryan Nivingalok also expressed dismay over the barge's arrival date slipping into October, allowing for the ice to become impassable.
"I remember last year they came in on the first week of August and that didn't create any problems," Nivingalok said. "With the barge not coming into town, we're going to have businesses affected. These businesses serve the community and it's going to be a ripple effect all the way down to the people."
The Hamlet of Kugluktuk is awaiting pieces of heavy equipment, vehicle oil and tires for its fleet, said Don LeBlanc, the community's senior administrative officer.
"We'll have enough (vehicle) oil to do us for part of the winter," he said.
There will be a prioritization process for the airlift and the cargo left behind in Hay River will need to to be placed in storage, another issue to be worked out, Ene noted.
The isn't the first time that barge cancellation has affected the Kitikmeot. A 2014 supply ship under the now defunct Northern Transportation Company Ltd. was also unable to fulfil its obligations due to October ice.
Ene said she's grateful that the Kitikmeot Chamber of Commerce was resurrected last year and can act on behalf of its members across the region in the face of this crisis. She added that she's contacting chambers of commerce in the NWT and Edmonton to enlist their support in lobbying the GNWT to resolve this situation to the satisfaction of Kitikmeot businesses.
More than 30 vehicles and large supplies of lumber, for example, were ordered from suppliers in the NWT and Edmonton, she noted. That money could go to Eastern companies if Cambridge Bay and Kugluktuk switch exclusively to Quebec-based NSSI or NEAS sealift service in the future, she suggested.