Although nothing has been set in stone — or gravel — about the next phase of construction on N.W.T.'s Mackenzie Highway, the community of Wrigley wants to make sure it's ready for it.
 
Mark Macneill, band manager for the Pehdzeh Ki First Nation in Wrigley, believes construction on the first phase of the highway — from Wrigley to Tulita — could begin in the next few years, and he says that’s not a lot of time for the community to prepare.
 
The community of less than 150 people sits at the end of the all-season road, connected to the rest of the Deh Cho via Fort Simpson but closed off from the Sahtu and Delta regions of the Northwest Territories. Since Wrigley was connected to the highway system in 1994, construction north ground to a halt.
 
Since taking the position in Wrigley in March, Macneill — who moved from Cape Breton, N.S., and has a background in business and investment — is looking for ways the band can take advantage of road construction.

Mackenzie Valley highway

The revised Mackenzie Valley Highway project will be done in phases, starting with a $700-million, 333-kilometre leg from Wrigley to Norman Wells. (CBC)

“There’s a long stretch of highway to the north and a long stretch of highway to the south that’s going to need to be serviced, so to capture that we need to position ourselves and tool up,” Macneill said. 

To “tool up,” Macneill said the band is trying to get young people in the community qualified to do jobs related to highway construction and maintenance, starting with driver training. It’s organizing an air brakes course in September — the second they’ve run in the past few years. Last time the course ran, three people participated. Macneill hopes to have five or six trained when the three-week course runs this fall.
 
“I’m really encouraging the youth this time to get out,” he said.
 
If and when they highway construction begins, Macneill hopes it will turn Wrigley, which lies about halfway between Tulita in the north and Fort Simpson in the south, into a construction and maintenance hub.
 
“There’s an awful lot of gravel that’s going to be needed,” Macneill said. "We have the best deposits of gravel, as it is, in the region.”
 
If roads are meant to bring prosperity, it hasn’t quite happened for Wrigley in the 20 years the community has been connected to the Mackenzie Highway. The community’s grocery store and post office building is empty, vacant lots and unused houses with smashed windows dot the streets and the population is slowly declining. Tourism isn’t exactly booming either — it’s the first week of July and the campgrounds are empty.

Winter road in summer

Mark Macneill, Pehdzeh Ki band manager, stands at the spot where the Mackenzie Valley all-season road ends and the winter-only road to the Sahtu communities begins. (Karen McColl)

Gabe Hardisty, a former Wrigley chief who rallied against the road coming to his community in the 1970s, now says the town could use the road connection north.
 
If the road goes forward, Hardisty said he’d like to see the young people of Wrigley trained to work on it, just like he was trained to work as a foreman on the Liard Highway in the ’80s.

“There’s a lot of young people in the Deh Cho region looking for work right now,” Hardisty said.
 
Although he worried about the impacts of social change from the highway to Wrigley in the ’70s, Hardisty says once the community is ready to take advantage of it, the development can be beneficial.

'There’s a lot of young people in the Deh Cho region looking for work right now.'- Gabe Hardisty

“We live with all these social problems and everything, up ‘till today, and we’re still here,” Hardisty said.
 
D’Arcy Moses is a world-renowned fashion designer who recently reconnected to his roots in Wrigley after growing up in southern Canada. He sees a lot of potential in development, but hopes it doesn’t harm the community’s traditional hunting and trapping ways.
 
“There will definitely be changes with the influx of non-aboriginal people coming into the community,” Moses said.
 
“Hopefully it will not dilute the culture here.”
 
Wrigley is an aboriginal community where Slavey is heard on the streets and at the band office.  Moses said many people in Wrigley still spend time on the land, using any income to buy gas for snowmobiles and boats.
 
Although Macneill’s eyes are on capturing any potential development from the road, the band manager says that because it will pass through traditional Dene land, the First Nation will need to be consulted.
 
“It’s theirs ... they’re the ones that have the say of what should be done with it.”


Karen McColl is a Whitehorse freelance journalist and this year’s winner of the Gordon Sinclair Roving Reporter Bursary. She is using the bursary to fund a canoe trip down the Mackenzie River to document the impact of oil, gas and construction development.