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'This is totally unacceptable': Tuk mayor, road contractors decry state of highway

High snow banks pictured along the the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway in February 2024. Erwin Elias, Tuktoyaktuk's mayor, said the road is dangerous and is calling on more support from the territorial government. (Desmond Loreen/CBC - image credit)
High snow banks pictured along the the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway in February 2024. Erwin Elias, Tuktoyaktuk's mayor, said the road is dangerous and is calling on more support from the territorial government. (Desmond Loreen/CBC - image credit)

The mayor of Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T. said the only road to, and from, his community is unsafe and is calling on more maintenance support from the territorial government.

"The GNWT's lack of action now threatens our access to food, our access to health care, supplies and put in jeopardy our fundamental rights to travel our own land," said Erwin Elias, Tuktoyaktuk's mayor.

Speaking with CBC News on March 14, Elias said high snow banks are causing safety issues on the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway when it's open, and he wants the N.W.T. government to pay more to clear the excess snow away.

The road was closed for 12 days in February and closed again on March 14, due to blowing snow and low visibility.

It reopened to single lane traffic the next day and on Monday morning, the territory's highway conditions map was still warning that sections of the road were only open to a single lane.

Merven Gruben is the co-owner of E. Gruben's Transport and is a director for EGT Northwind Ltd., the company is contracted to maintain the highway.

Gruben said he is afraid to drive the highway in it's current state due to the blind corners and high snow banks.

"This has got to be the worst highway in the Northwest Territories, maybe in Canada ... this is totally unacceptable," he said.

The N.W.T. Department of Infrastructure has told CBC News in previous interviews that the weather and snowfall has been exceptionally bad this winter.

But Elias said that isn't an excuse.

He said he understands there is a finite amount of money in the budget for maintenance, but this winter had heavier than expected snowfall, and he thinks the N.W.T. government should pay extra to get the road properly cleared.

"They need to get the equipment out now and remove the snow, so we can stop driving in these tunnels and all these blind corners," said Elias.

The hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk is working on a shoreline remediation project and is hauling truck loads of rock from a quarry on the highway. The constant road closures due to the snow blowing back over the highway have hampered those efforts, Elias said. He is concerned they won't have enough material hauled in place for the shoreline work to do any good this summer.

"Especially with the large equipment that's driving out there trying to get these projects that are super important to the community completed," said Elias.

Russell Newmark, EGT Northwind CEO, says he's made recommendations on how to keep the road clear.

"We have no say whatsoever. They just tell us to send a grader to kilometre 30 or send it to 60 or don't send anything. We have no discretion to send equipment on the road or to send to given locations," said Newmark.

"We can make recommendations but by and large for the last several weeks those recommendations have been ignored."

Newmark says the company has no discretion, and must simply follow instructions.

The Department of Infrastructure said it is doing all it can to clear the snow away from the highway to stop any safety hazards from blind corners.

Gary Brennan is the assistant deputy minister of regional operations with the Department of Infrastructure.

He told CBC News the department has been working with the contractors to get more equipment on the highway to clear wider lanes.

"I don't think any comments are ever ignored, however we do take everything into consideration in the big picture," said Brennan.

"We've spent a lot of money on extra equipment this winter already and are working with the contractor to get more out there."

He added, the department is directing equipment to problematic areas on the highway.