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1979: Dempster Highway opens 'road to resources' across Arctic

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After 20 years of construction and delay, the first all-weather road across the Arctic Circle is finally complete. The opening of the Dempster Highway should be a joyous event, but the celebrations are subdued because of one very notable absence. Former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, the man who envisioned the highway in the 1950s, had died two days earlier. As we see in this clip, an empty chair is held in honour of the man who almost lived to see his dream realized.
• The Dempster Highway was a response to a boom in oil and gas exploration in the Mackenzie Delta in the 1950s. To literally pave the way for drilling equipment to reach newly discovered resources, the Canadian government decided in 1958 to build a 671-kilometre highway across the Arctic Circle, from Dawson City, Yukon, to Inuvik, N.W.T.

• When the Conservatives swept to power in 1957, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and northern affairs minister Alvin Hamilton began work on a key campaign promise: "a vast roads program for the Yukon and the Northwest Territories" that would open up 30 million acres for exploration. $100 million was committed to the Northern Roads Program, and another $75 million for joint federal-provincial access roads. Diefenbaker called the construction program "Roads to Resources."

• Construction began in January of 1959, but changing federal priorities and disagreements between the federal and Yukon governments caused numerous delays. By 1961 construction had ceased entirely, with a mere 115 kilometres of roadbed built. Critics were quick to rename the program, "Roads to Remorses." (According to Yukon historian Ken Spotswood, isolated construction workers referred to the program as "Roads to Divorces.")

• Construction began again in earnest after American oil and gas discoveries in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska in 1968, and once Canada began considering building a pipeline down the Mackenzie Valley in the early 1970s.

• The name Dempster Highway was applied to the road in 1963. Its inspiration was RCMP Insp. William John Duncan Dempster, who came to the Yukon during the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush. Known as "The Iron Man of the Trail," Dempster would personally patrol (by dogsled) the hundreds of kilometres between Dawson City, Yukon and Fort McPherson, N.W.T.

• The Dempster Highway was completed in 1978, and officially opened at Flat Creek, Yukon, on Aug. 18, 1979. Some 200 people attended the ceremony. John Diefenbaker was to have presided over the ceremony, but he died on Aug. 16, 1979 (at the time of the Dempster ceremony, a funeral train was crossing the country to return Dief's body to Saskatoon for burial.) An empty chair was left to the late prime minister, and a potlatch (a native ceremonial feast) was held for him in Dawson City.

• There were initial concerns that the highway would alter migration routes of the Porcupine caribou herd, a recognized international resource for native peoples of the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Alaska. Later studies found that the caribou crossed the road with little hesitation, though the road did increase the threat from human hunters.

• Today the Dempster Highway is 736 kilometres long, running from Dawson City, Yukon, to Inuvik, NWT. Almost none of the two-lane road is paved -- the majority is dirt or gravel. It sits atop a thick (1.2 to 2.4 metres) gravel berm, which keeps the road from melting the permafrost and sinking into the ground. Driving the length of the highway takes about 14 hours.

Also on August 18:
1941: The Dominion Observatory in Ottawa is made the official timekeeper for Canada. This duty is transferred to the National Research Council in 1970.
1981: The Kent Commission releases its report recommending action to curb the growth of Canadian newspaper conglomerates. The 300-page report suggests the government place limits on the number of newspapers a company could own.
1994: The 15th Commonwealth Games open in Victoria, B.C., with South Africa participating for the first time in 36 years. South Africa withdrew from participation because the Commonwealth was considering a ban due to the country's apartheid policy of discrimination.
Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: Aug. 19, 1979
Guest(s): Erik Nielsen
Anchor: George McLean
Reporter: Dave McCready Duration: 2:13

Last updated: January 10, 2014

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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