New index says infrastructure in Nahanni Butte, N.W.T., is 2nd worst in Canada

A new report ranking infrastructure in remote communities puts Nahanni Butte dead last in the North — and second last out of 236 communities across Canada.

Dataset evaluates infrastructure in remote communities across 13 variables

Nahanni Butte, shown here in winter, has the second worst infrastructure of 265 remote communities in Canada. (submitted by Mindy Tsetso)

Nestled at the confluence of the Liard and Nahanni Rivers, Nahanni Butte, population 87, is a gateway to some of the most spectacular places the North has to offer.

But Nahanni Butte has no broadband internet. No road connects it to the rest of Canada for large parts of the year. Residents' power comes from diesel generators, their fresh water arrives by truck, and they have no local access to health care or a high school education.

Nahanni Butte's lack of infrastructure is highlighted in a newly released dataset from the Centre for the Study of Living Standards, a national non-profit research organization.

Out of 236 communities the organization evaluated from across Canada, Nahanni Butte is ranked second last for the quality of its infrastructure.

The dataset, produced for the National Indigenous Economic Development Board (NIEDB), is "a first attempt to construct an infrastructure index for remote communities in Canada," according to the accompanying report.

The index scores community infrastructure across 13 variables — everything from how communities get their power to the availability of housing.

Nahanni Butte lacks a health clinic and high school, and more than one in five houses is in need of major repairs, according to the index produced by the Centre for the Study of Living Standards. (Submitted by Nahanni Butte Dene Band)

Nahanni Butte received an aggregate score of 0.18 out of 1. In addition to its lack of transportation and communication infrastructure, the community was scored down for the state of its housing stock, where over one in five houses are in need of major repairs.

Nahanni Butte Chief Darrell Betsaka declined to comment, saying via a spokesperson that he would prefer to consult with community members before making a statement.

Gap worse in Indigenous communities

Nahanni Butte is far from alone — on average, the N.W.T. received a failing grade of 0.48. That's still better than the average for remote communities in Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, and Nunavut.

But Andrew Sharpe, executive director of the Centre for the Study of Living Standards, said the real surprise is not the challenges the North faces with infrastructure, but the discrepancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

"We … showed that there was a significant gap there, even in the North," he said.

The index revealed inequality even between communities that are similar in size and remoteness.

For example, Norman Wells, N.W.T., scored poorly on "economic infrastructure" because it's not connected to either a road or power grid. But it scored highly on "quality of life" indicators, having better water treatment facilities and housing than many comparable Indigenous communities.

Norman Wells received a higher score than nearby Indigenous communities on a variety of variables, including the quality of its airport, housing and water delivery system. (Katie Toth/CBC)

Improving many of the indicators would require major investments in infrastructure — projects that usually require federal money, like the $31 million for roads, water treatment and cultural projects in N.W.T. announced this week.

"When you think about the roads like the Tuktoyaktuk highway and the Mackenzie Valley Highway, it's all at a scale that the territorial government cannot manage on their own," said Sara Brown, CEO of the NWT Association of Communities.

But some poorly scoring indicators, such as housing, indicate persistent under-investment by the territorial government, local leaders say.

"The house that I'm living in now, according to the housing corporation, is one of the better houses," said Vernon Amos, chair of the community corporation in Sachs Harbour, N.W.T., which received a zero for housing on the index. 

"Most houses here have gone through several retrofits, but the quality of the workmanship and the quality of the materials have actually gone down," said Amos. "It might look newer, but it's by no means any better. It's actually worse."

The N.W.T. Department of Infrastructure did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

The South Klondike Highway in Yukon. The quality of Yukon's road network is one reason the territory's communities scored highly relative to other remote areas. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Nunavut's infrastructure worst in Canada, Yukon's the best

On average, Nunavut's infrastructure scores lowest out of all the provinces and territories — but its overall rating of 0.30 out of 1 can be misleading.

While every community but Grise Fiord was found to experience crowding, the territory's quality of life index is actually comparable to other regions.

The lack of a power grid and roads connecting the territory to the South, however, mean Nunavut scores very low on economic indicators — and its average is brought down as a result.

"We made a decision that we would weight all indicators equally, because you can have different views on the relative importance of different types of infrastructure," said Sharpe.

However you cut it, Yukon's indicators place it high in the ranking.

Access to roads, some form of health care, and K-12 education in most remote communities gave the territory an overall rating of 0.65, the highest average in Canada.

But the report also found all of the territory's Indigenous communities had housing stock badly in need of repair — and the same went for several non-Indigenous communities as well.

The index was prepared for the NEIDB's 2019 Indigenous Economic Progress Report, a report card on the federal government's progress in achieving economic parity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

For residents of communities like Nahanni Butte, the report's findings are not very encouraging.

"While the overall economic outcomes for Indigenous peoples are improving in Canada," the introduction reads, "this is only to varying, and sometimes small degrees."