David Ramsay - Keynote Breakfast Address Northern Transportation Conference 2013

October 29, 2013
Ministers' Statements and Speeches

(October 29. 2013) - Good morning. I’d like to start by acknowledging the Van Horne Institute for their work in organizing this year’s Northern Transportation Conference. This follows previous successful conferences held in Anchorage, Whitehorse, and Iqaluit--locations that have in common certain challenges such as a harsh climate, short construction seasons, and transportation systems that serve small communities across great distances. I am very pleased that the conference is back in Yellowknife again, following the inaugural Northern Transportation Conference held here, back in 2005.

I extend my warmest greetings to all our conference participants - especially those who travelled long distances to be here today. Welcome to Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, a city with a long and colourful history of economic development based largely on natural resource exploration.

There was a time when the NWT economy was driven by the extraction of millions of ounces of pure, hard, brilliant gold. Gold that was drilled, dug, scraped, and hauled out by the truckloads from underground mines such as Con and Giant, through a labyrinth of caverns beneath the city of Yellowknife. That’s back when Yellowknife was known as the city where ‘the gold was paved with streets’.

At one time, the territory shone with golden brilliance – it now also sparkles by producing from some of the highest grade diamonds in the world. The Northwest Territories is home to three producing mines, producing more than 10 million carats per year, valued at $1.6 billion in 2012. A fourth mine, Gahcho Kue, just received environmental assessment approval last week.

In addition to diamonds, the NWT harbours an identified—confirmed—untapped wealth of oil, gas, and mineral deposits in unrivaled quantities. Estimates are that the NWT could hold as much as 37 per cent of Canada’s marketable light crude oil resources and 35 per cent of the Canada’s marketable natural gas resources. Even in the face of our great potential, there is one challenge that remains unsolved – how to get the resources to the global market. The wealth is locked away in areas difficult to access. These access challenges arise from a transportation system that’s underdeveloped and, in some cases, only seasonal.

Many of our communities are still without all-weather access; some are resupplied only by air or marine; resource-rich areas are limited to seasonal access by winter roads constrained by Mother Nature’s schedule and influenced by climate change.

Other primary challenges we deal with have to do with project scale, logistics, and cost. The North is the only area in Canada where new roads are being built on land where no development has existed before. This requires an innovative approach to both engineering and construction. This creates expensive operational requirements.

Our lack of a complete and reliable multi-modal transportation system may be a deterrent to future resource development. In fact, over 90% of respondents in the Fraser Institute’s 2011 survey of mining companies pointed to insufficient infrastructure as a reason to not invest in the NWT. In their estimation, the cost of operations in the Northwest Territories is an issue.

Holding the portfolios of transportation and economic development for the Government of the Northwest Territories provides me with a unique perspective on the critical link between transportation and the economy. Each one is dependent upon the other. Transportation has always been at the forefront of enabling growth and economic development. The building of  new roads, airports, and bridges, and the rehabilitation of the transportation system leads to job creation and a more competitive economy.

A year ago, we celebrated the opening of the Deh Cho Bridge at Fort Providence, the first permanent structure to span the Mackenzie River.  The day was cold but the warmth and companionship among the engineers, contractors, transportation staff, and community members was enough to ward off the minus 30 temperature. We were brought together to celebrate the results of the Government of the Northwest Territories’ decision to invest in the bridge construction project – a project first envisioned five decades ago.  It was a bold investment that’s led to year-round, reliable access to communities and resources in the North Slave region. A time-consuming and expensive bottle-neck in the movement of goods during break-up and freeze-up of the river has been relieved. Calculated, well-considered, and bold investments are necessary to construct and rehabilitate transportation infrastructure in the Northwest Territories so that we may rely upon year-round movement of people and goods.

When we have reliable modes of transportation, we attract private investment and create potential for value-added growth. An economy can grow and prosper through increased access to essential goods and services and to natural resources. Linking communities within a region provides jobs, fosters social development and trade, and allows for social interaction. If we want to turn the NWT into a centre for economic opportunity and advancement, we need to continue to make significant investment in transportation infrastructure.

Since 2002, the GNWT has invested $120 million in strategic infrastructure improvements in the Mackenzie Valley Corridor with the construction of 35 permanent bridges, grade and alignment improvements, and safety enhancements. These investments have successfully stabilized and extended the operating season and increased the load-bearing capacity of the Mackenzie Valley Winter Road.

While these steps move us toward our long-term goal of growth and development, we still have a great deal to do to achieve the dream of constructing an all-weather highway through the Mackenzie Valley corridor to the Arctic coast. The people of the Northwest Territories have been working toward that vision since the launch of John Diefenbaker’s ‘Roads to Resources’ and ‘Northern Vision’ campaigns more than 50 years ago. Diefenbaker and Northerners inspired Canadians to believe in the economic potential of the North. And their belief was justified. Currently, the Northwest Territories has four diamond mines,  mineral and base metal mine development, significant hydroelectric potential, and proven oil and gas reserves.

We continue to believe the Mackenzie Valley Highway will support non-renewable resource development, facilitate the diversification of our economy, and enhance northern security and sovereignty. Residents along the corridor will receive better access to essential services, increased mobility, a lower cost of living, and increased economic development opportunities. The federal government appears to be convinced as seen in Canada’s commitment to invest $200 million into building the northernmost section of the Mackenzie Valley Highway project, the portion from Tuktoyaktuk south to Inuvik. The federal government describes it as ‘a project of national significance’. Its support recognizes the importance of the project to the country’s security, sovereignty, and economic development. An economic analysis from 2010 concluded an all-weather highway between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk would support natural gas field exploration and development by substantially reducing costs relating to drilling and well development in the region.

It remains a fact that infrastructure development in the territory, even post-devolution, will require strong partnerships with the Government of Canada. Through these partnerships, we have been incrementally addressing strategic transportation infrastructure needs. We have improved the geometric and surface conditions on the Liard, Mackenzie, Dempster, Yellowknife, and Ingraham Trail highways, extended runways, and constructed some new community airports. Federal investment programs such as the Building Canada Plan are vital to the NWT’s ability to meet the access needs of both our communities and our economy.

Our federal partners are currently developing a new infrastructure-funding program that will follow the $200 million joint investment made in NWT transportation infrastructure over the past seven years. I am hopeful that the new funding partnership will begin soon.

In June 2013, the Department of Transportation submitted its strategic infrastructure-funding proposal for the federal government’s consideration under the new Building Canada Plan. The proposal includes a $600 million investment over ten years to improve our winter roads, highways, bridges, marine, and airport infrastructure. Our investment plan, called Corridors for Canada 3: Building for Prosperity, addresses transportation infrastructure needs across all regions of the Northwest Territories, priorities that will be included in our Multi-Modal Transportation System Plan, which is currently under development.

This gathering of northern transportation stakeholders is an excellent opportunity to gain information and input as we move toward the development of a comprehensive Multi-Modal Transportation Strategy for the Northwest Territories. My officials in attendance will be listening to you, our stakeholders, to gather your thoughts about what our future transportation system and supporting policies should look like.

Observations that you have, as business people, as community and government leaders, and as representatives of resource and logistic industries will be an important component of a strategy that will guide future infrastructure and policy development and enable the Northwest Territories to realize its full potential. Our goal, with your input, is to develop a sustainable transportation system plan that considers all modes and reflects the transportation infrastructure needs of the NWT for the next twenty, thirty, or more, years.

This conference is the first opportunity to engage since our strategy’s development was officially launched in our Legislative Assembly last week, but it will not be the last. We will continue meeting with other levels of government, the public, and transportation and industry stakeholders to talk and receive feedback. We will incorporate that information, as best we can, into a transportation plan that will support our government’s vision of a strong, prosperous territory that effectively links communities to opportunities for social and economic growth and prosperity.

I will conclude by reinforcing the importance of planning for and investing in northern transportation infrastructure. Creating reliable access to Northern resources and communities supports and is vital to Canada’s economic future. Our transportation system is the backbone of our economy. Canada’s northern transportation system will need to support future economic growth and be responsive to changing economic drivers such as increasing global demand for energy, minerals, gems, and the base metals needed to produce certain technologies. The Northwest Territories has the commodities to offer the global marketplace; we just need the supporting infrastructure to get them there. To realize the benefits of our northern resources, we must be bold about making strategic investments in Northern transportation infrastructure.

Investing in our pan-northern transportation system will help ensure a sovereign, strong, and prosperous country for generations to come. I invite you to join us in fulfilling that vision by contributing your observations and ideas in this year’s Northern Transportation Conference.

Thank you for your kind attention.