Nahanni Butte plans to move ahead with road construction despite court case

Two stop-work orders and one court appearance later, the Nahanni Butte Dene Band says it won't be denied from building a road out of the small community.

N.W.T. government took band to court after community members started clearing out logging road

With delays to building an all-weather road to Prairie Creek mine, the Nahanni Butte Dene Band began cutting its own path in January. Despite government opposition, the band plans to move forward with construction once temperatures warm.

Two stop-work orders and one court appearance later, the Nahanni Butte Dene Band says it won't be denied from building a road out of the small community. 

The N.W.T. government took the band to court earlier this month after community members started clearing an old logging road in the area. 

At the time, the territorial government alleged that the work was an attempt to speed up the development of Canadian Zinc's nearby Prairie Creek Mine.

The mine, which is in the advanced stages of development, is located in the heart of Nahanni National Park. 

Locals have been waiting almost three years for a proposed road connecting the Fort Liard Highway and the mine to make its way through the Mackenzie Valley Review Board's environmental assessment process.  

Growing impatient, band members started building their own road on federally-managed Indian Affairs Branch land earlier this year. 

Band manager Mark Pocklington told CBC the band had applied for a permit back in February, but the process stalled.

Canadian Zinc has proposed an all-weather road to its Prairie Creek Mine, about 100 km away from Nahanni Butte. (CBC)

Without proper permitting in place, stop-work orders were issued by the GNWT and the federal government. The territorial government later took the band to court after the orders were ignored.  

On Wednesday, a band member said the case had been shelved for the time being, and that community members would push forward with construction once it starts to warm up.

Nahanni Butte Chief Peter Marcellais has publicly stated that he's interested in using their road to facilitate the construction of a longer road to the zinc mine.

Public hearings being held this week

Meanwhile, the proposed all-season road to Prairie Creek is the subject of public hearings in Nahanni Butte and Fort Simpson this week.

In Nahanni Butte on Monday, Marcellais said elders want to know if the road will be built while they're still alive. 

"They want to know that the road is going to open," he said. "They're telling me that they want to see the road open while they're still around, they're still with us."

Pocklington says community members want to be put to work.

"The idea of waiting for bureaucratic process, or a review process to take place, that seems to go on for not months but years," he said. 

"It has been very, very frustrating at the community level. We want to get people out working."

Representatives from Canadian Zinc and the Mackenzie Valley Review Board are also on hand for the public hearings. 
Canadian Zinc's chief operating officer, Alan Taylor, says he shares the band's frustrations and that he wants to move forward with the road in co-management with Nahanni Butte.

"We share their frustration in the time it has taken to get to where we are here and our investor base shares that too," he said on Monday. 

"We're looking forward to confirming the permit and the conditions of that permit so we can run a successful operation here for the benefit of all."

Company says proposed road could present 'dire consequences'

Ahead of this week's hearings, a company that identifies enterprise risks flagged a number of issues with the proposed 184-kilometre road. 

Vancouver-based Riskope didn't travel to Fort Simpson for the hearings, but prepared a presentation that was submitted to the Mackenzie Valley Review Board. 

In its report, Riskope argues that the proposed road is too narrow at five metres, and would present a significant risk to private vehicles. 

"Should private traffic be allowed, there will be very dire consequences, especially on lighter vehicles," read the report.

"Time for rescue has [also] been grossly underestimated."

Engineers with Canadian Zinc refuted the report, arguing that the risk assessment predicted 10 times too many accidents. 

Public hearings will continue until Friday in Fort Simpson. 

The Mackenzie Valley Review Board says it will consider the views of all parties present before delivering a report to the Department of Lands for consideration.