Nunavut, Kitikmeot Inuit team up to build longest road in Nunavut

A project proposal to build the longest road in Nunavut — a 227 ­kilometre all­-season road from the shores of the Northwest Passage — is moving closer to fruition.

Road would begin at Grays Bay and stretch south to the N.W.T.'s diamond mines

A project proposal to build the longest road in Nunavut — a 227-­kilometre all­-season road from the shores of the Northwest Passage — is moving closer to fruition.

The road would connect a proposed port at Grays Bay – on the shores of the Northwest Passage between Bathurst Inlet and Kugluktuk – to the N.W.T.'s winter roads. (Government of Nunavut)

On Friday, the Government of Nunavut signed a memorandum of understanding with the Kitikmeot Inuit Association to partner on the project. 

The road would connect a proposed deep water port at Grays Bay — on the Northwest Passage between Bathurst Inlet and Kugluktuk — to the winter road that services the N.W.T.'s diamond mines. It's one of Nunavut's and the N.W.T's richest area in minerals.

"The challenge has always been lack of road infrastructure to get the product out," said Tom Hoefer, the executive director of the N.W.T. and Nunavut Chamber of Mines. "So this is nothing new in the sense of people wanting to get road access in that region.

"What's new is the Grays Bay proposal came along about three years ago and has been working its way forward as more and more people are supportive of seeing deposits developed in the Kitikmeot region."

The first phase of the project has a $487-million price tag, though the Nunavut government and the Kitikmeot Inuit have applied for federal funding for three-quarters of the cost.

Eventually, the road could be a vital link that connects western Nunavut to Yellowknife, and the rest of Canada. 

Road project been tried before

MMG, a mining company based in Australia, has proposed a zinc mine in the region at Izok Lake, but the cost to reach the metals is prohibitive. 

Back in 2012, the company made its own pitch for a 350-­kilometre road in the area, linking its mine to Grays Bay. But the project stalled at the review stage.

The Nunavut Impact Review Board recommended the project undergo further review because of potential "significant adverse affects on the ecosystem, wildlife habitat or Inuit harvesting activities, [and] adverse socio­economic effects on northerners."

The company subsequently told the board to hold off on the review for economic reasons.

The latest Grays Lake proposal has a few differences — namely it won't link directly to MMG's mine — but the company is happy to see others take the lead on the project. 

"MMG strongly believes that there are significant long ­term benefits that these types of collaborations and innovative partnerships can bring to Nunavut and the local communities," said Sahba Safavi, the president of MMG Canada.

"If the proposed road and port goes ahead, we will need to go back and check [the viability of our mine]. It will significantly help the economic viability of the project."

But Safavi said having a road, or even an approval for one, won't kickstart the mine just yet. It's a long process to first get the approval, possibly even longer to build it, and by then global markets can change drastically.

Nunavut government changing its tune

At the time of MMG's original proposal, the Nunavut government submitted comments to the Nunavut Impact Review Board, saying the project "could have significant effects on the wildlife, wildlife habitat, socio­economics of Nunavut, and heritage resources," and calling for a more extensive review. 

Four years later, the GN has changed its tune with its own proposal.

"There's a whole new mandate relative to resource envelopment," said Jim Stevens, Nunavut's assistant deputy minister of transportation.

"I think the biggest thing though, is our partnership with KIA. That allows us to go forward with community engagement consultations and wildlife management, with an Inuit organization beside us in our planning and proposing of any management plans." 


Nick Murray


Nick Murray is a CBC News reporter, based in Iqaluit since 2015. He specializes in investigative reporting and access to information legislation. A graduate from St. Thomas University's journalism program, he's also covered four Olympic Games as a senior writer with CBC Sports.