First Nations and territory sign Dempster deal

Shock absorbers rejoice: the potholed Dempster Highway is officially part of Canada’s national highway system. So now the planning starts.

Shock absorbers rejoice: the potholed Dempster Highway is officially part of Canada’s national highway system.

So now the planning starts.

Which is why the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, Na-cho Nyak Dun and Vuntut Gwitchin First Nations are pledging to work with the Yukon government.

They did so by co-signing a Dempster corridor “strategic economic development plan” in Dawson City on Friday.

“It’s about getting people in the same room at the same time to talk about the same topic — northern Yukon economic development,” Economic Development Minister Jim Kenyon said in a phone interview from Dawson before the signing.

“This is an economic-development agreement that can allow all of the (northern) First Nations to participate in those discussions,” he said.

Tr’ondek Hwech’in chief Darren Taylor, Na-cho Nyak Dun chief Simon Mervyn, and Vuntut Gwitchin chief Joe Linklater all inked the pact with Kenyon.

It follows a partnership agreement between the Yukon and the three First Nations, signed in July 2004.

“By working together we will be able to ensure there are opportunities for our people,” said Taylor in a release.

“We look forward to working together on carefully planned sustainable development initiatives that would be beneficial, ultimately, to our communities and collectively to Yukoners,” said Mervyn in a release.

A planned interpretive centre built and operated by the Tr’ondek Hwech’in at Tombstone Park is now part of the agreement, as are spin-off tourism, infrastructure and retail opportunities along the highway, said Kenyon.

The big news for travellers is that the Dempster’s gravel surface may get smoother in the future.

The highway’s inclusion in the national road system “opens up huge new possibilities for increasing the access to federal funds,” Kenyon said.

“We can now leverage larger sums of money to develop that corridor much more easily.”

During the recent federal election campaign, Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged $2 billion over five years in additional funding for the national highway system.

Construction of the 671-kilometre Dempster started in the 1950s, but stopped in 1961.

Oil discoveries in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in the 1970s prompted Ottawa to complete the highway by 1979 because of economic and sovereignty concerns

Energy resources and sovereignty are again key motivators behind the decision to make the Dempster a national route and this bodes well for the new economic agreement, said Kenyon.

“As the Mackenzie Valley pipeline gets closer to fruition, the quality of that road for supply and services is going to be a big thing,” he said.

The new deal allows the three northern Yukon First Nations to work with the Yukon to develop economic initiatives around the Dempster corridor, Kenyon said,

But there is no dollar value to it, he conceded.

Friday’s announcement comes on the cusp of a territorial election.

Asked about the timing of the deal, Kenyon was adamant that it is not mere electioneering.

“It’s been a long process,” he said of the deal.

“Do you take the criticism that it’s done just before an election, or do you take the criticism that we don’t want to be seen that way and delay a very good program that’s been worked on for three years?” he asked.

“I’m not prepared to wait any further.”