North

'How do we get ahead?' Former Tuktoyaktuk mayor shares fears after Arctic drilling ban

A federal moratorium on offshore Arctic drilling is a "kick in the head" for residents of an Arctic coastal community, according to a community leader and former mayor.

Northwest Territories MP defends decision, says 'there is going to be significant investment in the North'

Merven Gruben, the former mayor of Tuktoyaktuk, says that an announced ban on offshore Arctic drilling is a 'kick in the head' for the Arctic community.

An announced moratorium on offshore Arctic drilling is a "kick in the head" for residents of an Arctic coastal community, according to a community leader and former mayor.

Merven Gruben, the former mayor of Tuktoyaktuk and current vice president of E. Gruben's Transport, a major employer in the community, says that Wednesday's announcement by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is a blow to the struggling economic prospects of the region, which are currently being bolstered by construction of a $300 million highway from Tuktoyaktuk to Inuvik.

"If there wasn't this road being built, we'd be in really, really sad shape," said Gruben. "It's kept this economy up here going for the past three years. What do we do after that?"

Pictured during construction earlier this year, the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk highway is entering its final construction season. Gruben is concerned what will happen to his community's economy once the road is completed. (Photo courtesy of the GNWT Department of Transportation)

The road is currently on schedule to be completed in November of 2017. One of the reasons for the road's construction was to help open the region to resource development, a goal that Gruben said is significantly hampered by the moratorium.

"After this road we're building... one of the key things we were looking at was development of the Beaufort," said Gruben. "We're supposed to be consulted with equal say on land and water in our region, and yes this was just thrown in, blanketed the whole Arctic here. I really think it's just going to keep our people on social assistance.

"How do we get ahead?"

'They're not going to feed us'

Although there were no plans for drilling in the Beaufort Sea over the next five years, Gruben says that there is still "a lot of interest" in the region, but that Trudeau's announcement essentially renders development a "lost cause."

"Tuk has been really sustainable and reliant on oil and gas for the '70s, '80s, '90s," he said. "We keep looking at pipe dreams and thinking that they're going to happen, but it's just getting further and further away.

"We're trying to be self-reliant and get off social assistance. You get all these environmentalists, and Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund are doing all this stuff and shutting this down, and then they take off. They're not going to feed us."

 Gruben said that the days of reliance on hunting and trapping are "gone" in the Arctic, and that his community is looking for sustainable employment, saying "everybody wants things to happen. And to work." He's pushing for a port to be built in Tuktoyaktuk, as well as increased coast guard support, given increased shipping and cruise ship traffic in the Northwest Passage.
MP Michael McLeod says there will be 'significant investment' in the North, likening the drilling ban to 'hitting the pause button.' (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Michael McLeod, the Member of Parliament for the Northwest Territories, responded to Gruben's concerns by calling the moratorium "a pause" and saying that the five-year ban offers time for stakeholders to regroup and consider a new strategy for the region.

"The community of Tuk is looking at many things," he said. "We're talking about the road, we're also looking at ports. We're also looking at facilities that would help us deal with offshore oil and gas.

"I think everybody would agree, we make a mistake and we have an oil spill or a crisis situation and no ability to respond, we'd be in a very difficult situation to explain that. So we have to get it right."

McLeod also said there would be "significant investment" in the North, saying that the decision needs to be put in perspective when developing a sustainable economic strategy for the territories.

"The Prime Minister's indicated publicly that he wants to invest in the Northwest Territories and develop the economy, in light of losing some ability on the oil and gas front," he said.

with files from Richard Gleeson, Lawrence Nayally, Marc Winkler

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