A temporary closure of the Dempster Highway by the GNWT lasted an entire day before the decision was walked back for traditional harvesters at the request of the Gwich’in Tribal Council.
An unattributed Oct. 29 public service announcement stated Highway 8 would be closed to traffic from the Yukon border to 14.2 kilometres into the NWT once both ferries ceased operation. The Mackenzie River ferry shut down the same day at 1 p.m.
However, GTC Grand Chief Ken Smith said the GNWT did not inform local governments of the decision, noting the first he learned of the decision was when he read about it in the media.
“Unfortunately it was another case of no notice and a just a complete lack of involvement in the process,” he said. “The Dempster Highway is a vital transportation route for our people. There’s a number of camps along the highway and a number of these have been utilized over the last months to protect our people from the Covid-19 virus.”
Noting that the closure of the ferries limits how much people can travel on the road regardless, Smith said the plan to close the road from the Yukon border to the James Creek gate, which sits between the Yukon border and Fort McPherson, would have impeded harvesting efforts that were being planned in several Mackenzie Delta communities.
He noted the Porcupine Caribou herd had altered its migration patterns this year and had not been in the region during normal harvest times, so hunters were hoping to make up for lost quarry now that the herd was in the area. But a lot of their camps would have been inaccessible with the gate closed.
“They are expected in the area in the next couple of days,” said Smith. “That’s what made this announcement all the more concerning, we did not have the harvest during the fall that we’re used to. In fact, the Porcupine caribou started heading back towards Alaska before they started heading back towards the Yukon and the NWT in the last few weeks.
“We were anticipating a winter with little or no caribou this year, so to have the migration route change and for them coming back towards the Dempster Highway is a very positive sign, especially considering the number of recent deaths we’ve had in our communities, particularly in Fort McPherson.”
However, after speaking with both Premier Caroline Cochrane and Infrastructure Minister Diane Archie, Smith said the GNWT agreed to walk back the decision and leave the James Creek gate open for harvesters, allowing people to harvest caribou and other wild game. The gate will still close during bad weather, which is standard procedure. The border to the Yukon remains closed.
He thanked the GNWT for re-thinking its decision and said he hoped there would be better communication between the two governments in the future.
“They have agreed to a process whereby they will leave it open,” said Smith. “We feel as the Gwich’in Tribal Council we must work together to protect the health and wellness of our residents in the NWT. Our participants have been completely discounted and overlooked in this process.
“Thankfully the Premier and Minister Diane Archie were receptive to the feedback and promised to do better moving forward. We just wish we could have had some of these discussions before any decisions or more importantly any news releases were issued.”