Transportation in the North

The first organized transport in the North was connected with the FUR TRADE, either in HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY ships in the eastern Arctic or in canoes and other small craft in the West (see CANOE, BIRCHBARK).

Mackenzie Highway
The highway runs north from Grimshaw, Alberta, to Wrigley, NWT, on the Mackenzie River (courtesy Government of the NWT).
Northern Bush Plane
Aircraft provide recreational access to the North as well as supplies and medical transport (courtesy Government of the NWT).
Barge on the Mackenzie River
Barge on the Mackenzie River, NWT (photo by Raymond Giguère).
Cessna 206
Charter aircraft serve many northern communities (photo by Robert Semeniuk/First Light).

Transportation in the North

If Canada as a whole represents the triumph of TRANSPORTATION over geography, the same is doubly true of the Canadian NORTH. Organized settlement in the North depends to an extraordinary degree on the development of transportation systems. Water transport was the first means of penetrating the North. Explorers came from the east, by sea, fur traders from the south, via the MACKENZIE R, and, much later, whalers from the west, around Alaska.

The first organized transport in the North was connected with the FUR TRADE, either in HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY ships in the eastern Arctic or in canoes and other small craft in the West (see CANOE, BIRCHBARK). The line of settlement was so far to the south that road transport was prohibitively expensive and, while it was occasionally proposed to link the North with the South by railway, the schemes for doing so verged on the fatuous.

Population and economic development north of the 60th parallel did not justify the expense, and so the North continued to be served by water, which meant that for between 7 and 9 months of the year transportation was blocked by ice. Along the Mackenzie, virtually continual water transport was possible from the railhead at Waterways (now FT MCMURRAY, Alta), in northern Alberta, all the way to the Arctic Ocean. There was one major portage, on the Slave River near Fortt Smith, and shipments depended to a high degree on water levels in the southerly parts of the system. The HBC dominated the traffic, and maintained a small fleet of steamships to carry it.

Transportation was revolutionized by the appearance of the airplane. Bush pilots, often air-force veterans from WWI, could take their small craft where no boat could go (see BUSH FLYING). Better still, an airplane was virtually an all-season craft. The North's winter isolation was finally broken. Using airplanes, prospectors could work more efficiently. A PROSPECTING boom was followed by mining development, particularly at YELLOWKNIFE and at GREAT BEAR LAKE.

Mining development raised traffic volume along the Mackenzie, and created a demand for competition to lower the rates charged by the HBC. Several companies arose, of which the most enduring was Northern Transportation Company Ltd, which became a subsidiary of Eldorado Gold Mines Ltd (now Eldorado Nuclear Ltd), a uranium- and radium-producing company. Meanwhile the bush pilots' operations were being amalgamated into larger entities, particularly Canadian Pacific Airlines, a CPR subsidiary.

WWII brought further changes. The ALASKA HIGHWAY was built from northern BC through the southern Yukon, opening the North to road traffic for the first time, as well as demonstrating that an all-weather road was possible. The US army developed airfields and an oil PIPELINE in the Mackenzie Valley, again augmenting traffic volumes in that area. Wartime saw the appearance of new and bigger airplanes, especially the DC-3 and DC-4, making air cargo something more than a luxury for the first time. Just after the war, the HBC abandoned its riverboat business, leaving the field to Northern Transportation Company Ltd, which by then had become a federal crown corporation.

Northern Transportation greatly expanded its operations, particularly after the construction of the DEW Line in the mid-1950s. It operated as a common carrier down the Mackenzie and into the Arctic Ocean - west to Alaska and east to the Arctic Archipelago. In 1975 NTCL set up a branch at Churchill, Man, to service the Keewatin coastal settlements on the western side of Hudson Bay. In 1985 NTCL was sold to an Inuit corporation and thus ceased to be a crown corporation.

Airports were improved to handle the larger aircraft of the postwar period. The WHITE PASS AND YUKON RAILWAY had been built between Whitehorse and Skagway, Alaska, at the turn of the century; in 1960 another was completed linking Alberta with Great Slave Lake. A regular highway was built linking Yellowknife with northern Alberta. The DEMPSTER HIGHWAY, from Dawson to Inuvik, is Canada's northernmost highway. Ice roads, connecting such places as Great Bear Lake with Yellowknife, could also be established and kept open during the long winter. Air service increased, as did expenditure on airports.

The CANADIAN COAST GUARD operates 6 icebreakers in northern waters. Bulk cargoes have been dispatched annually from Churchill (grain) since 1931; from Nanisivik (ore) since 1977; and from Little Cornwallis Island (ore) since 1982. Oil in bulk is transported south by pipeline.

Further Reading

  • Dept of Indian and Northern Affairs, Government Activities in the North (1981).