The Government of the Northwest Territories says it will cost about $1.7 billion to extend the Mackenzie Valley Highway from Wrigley, N.W.T. to the Dempster Highway — just south of Inuvik, N.W.T

But the territorial government hasn't committed any money to the project. It's hoping the federal government will pay for most of it.

New road construction in all of Canada's territories is a federal responsibility. That means the feds pay for at least some of the costs.

Long-time plan

The highway extension is an idea that's decades in the making. The Mackenzie Valley Highway dates back to the 1960s and 70s, when then-Prime Minister John Diefenbaker wanted to build roads in Northern Canada to get at resources such as oil and minerals. 

The big project at the time was the Dempster Highway. But the government also built part of the Mackenzie Valley Highway starting in Fort Simpson, N.W.T. But construction stopped in Wrigley when aboriginal groups in the area expressed concerns about the environmental and social impact of the project.

Some people in the Sahtu, the area the highway extension would run through, still have those concerns.

"Children [are] not attending school, they're not being looked after properly," says Sharon Pellisey, Chief of Wrigley. "These problems already exist in every community. With the highway coming through, that will escalate."

Still, some very preliminary steps are being taken.

"A lot of the old information was dusted off," says Jim Stevens, director of the Mackenzie Valley Highway Project. Engineering and environmental work originally done more than two decades ago is being updated using modern architectural and environmental methods, Stevens says.

As director of the project, Stevens hopes the federal government will buy in. "It just builds momentum to say, 'Hey, we're ready to go on this, what's your decision?'" he says.

Cece McCauley of Norman Wells, the founder of Women Warriors of the Sahtu, has also been pounding on Ottawa's door to get the highway done.

"We've got to do something. There are some young people who have never been out of the Sahtu," she says.

But Stevens says the preliminary work and the regulatory approval will take years, possibly until about 2017 — right when the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway is set to be finished.