Feds see need for dredging first-hand

Duncan Dee, adviser to the Canadian Transportation Act Review, left, stands with fellow advisor David Cardin and manager of sales and advertising for NTCL Jevub Wasylyshyn in the Hay River harbour on June 3.

Duncan Dee, adviser to the Canadian Transportation Act Review, left, stands with fellow advisor David Cardin and manager of sales and advertising for NTCL Jevub Wasylyshyn in the Hay River harbour on June 3.

Hay River’s harbour got some federal attention last week, but still awaits much-needed dredging to ensure the season will run smoothly.

“NTCL was telling us that in most places, they talk about fathoms or metres of water under a ship, small fishing vessels can talk about feet,” said Pietro Debastiani, assistant director of policy, planning and communication for the Department of Transportation, who accompanied a panel of federal bureaucrats on a visit to Hay River’s harbour last week. “Here, we’re talking about inches.”

Removing the debris along the bottom of the harbour to let vessel pass through easily used to be a federal responsibility. As part of money-saving measures in the 1990s, the program was cut, according to Debastiani. Since then, he said the territory has been accessing piecemeal funding to do some work but even that has dried up.

“We had found a way of going at the most troublesome spots,” he said. “It was working relatively well for a number of years.”

But last week, a panel of experts appointed by the federal transport minister got the chance to see the need for themselves. Along with Debastiani, they boarded the Coast Guard vessel Kakisa to discuss the problems with those who face them on a regular basis.

“We’ve always made the case that the North is a unique place. Lots of communities are dependent on marine re-supply,” he said. “Like the decision to end the dredging program in the ‘90s, these are decisions made in the south, not only far away from the realities, but without maybe really trying to understand the situation here.”

The panel has been tasked with a two-year cross-Canada trip to asses all types of transportation in anticipation to the amendment of the federal transportation act. They are set to table a report with recommendations at the end of this year.

“We’re obviously keen that they’re looking at it,” said Hay River North MLA Robert Bouchard, who has been a vocal supporter of the need for dredging in the harbour. “It’s getting desperate, I guess. Hopefully, it’s going to be an election issue in the upcoming federal election. Because of the low water on the whole river, other MLAs have voiced concerns.”

Bouchard said the visit was a good step forward but that there needs to be continued pressure put on federal bureaucrats and politicians in order to see the work eventually done.

“At the end of it, it’s a lot of work to co-ordinate effective communication between southern departments, but in the past we’ve been able to do that and see results,” said Debastiani. “We need senior levels of federal government to realize that they can’t expect to walk away from the Arctic and expect it to continue functioning the way it has, as well as become something to build on for the future.”

— Sarah Ladik