The GNWT’s minister of Infrastructure said he can’t explain why the last barge due into the Kitikmeot was delayed by a couple of weeks and was subsequently cancelled due to increasing sea ice.

Wally Schumann, the NWT’s minister of Infrastructure, who oversees the sealift barging division, Marine Transportation Services.

It may have been related to not having a crew ready or the Coast Guard not getting its buoys in place in time, Minister Wally Schumann suggested. It was not, however, due to commitments to resupply TMAC’s Hope Bay gold project or Sabina Gold & Silver’s Back River project, he insisted.

“People are focusing on that maybe a little bit too much,” he said. “It’s not like we had one boat running around, we had five ships delivering freight all over the place.”

He added, “I’m a business guy. When you put up a date, it’s going to be tentative anywhere, subject to conditions, and this is a condition that happened with an unprecedented amount of sea ice coming down.”

The GNWT will pick up the costs associated with a massive airlift that will replace the cancelled barge service into Kugluktuk, Cambridge Bay and Paulatuk, NWT.

The NWT government made that announcement on Oct. 4, a week after it was determined that the barge carrying critical supplies couldn’t make it into the communities. The GNWT’s Department of Infrastructure called upon the Canadian Coast Guard on Sept. 27 but was informed that not even the highest class icebreaker in the Coast Guard’s fleet could break through the ice, according to Schumann.

The priority airlift item will be diesel fuel for Paulatuk, likely followed by food for grocery stores, Schumann said. Vehicles, however, will not be put on planes, he said. The goods left behind in Inuvik will remain in a secure, heated warehouse that the GNWT took over when it purchased assets formerly belonging to NTCL, which became insolvent in 2016.

Schumann said he doesn’t expect this situation will result in a loss of business for MTS next year. A private sealift company wouldn’t come to the aid of customers without shipping insurance like MTS is doing, he asserted.

“We’re taking an unprecedented step to try to look after these people in these communities and get in the goods,” Schumann said. “That’s what governments do. We look after the people, that’s our job.”

The minister said he doesn’t know how much the delivery by air will cost the government. When asked where the money will come from, he replied, “We’ll worry about that when it comes. My worry right now is the people.”

The Kitikmeot Chamber of Commerce organized a meeting in Cambridge Bay earlier this week and determined, based on the 40 people and business representatives present, that a minimum of $3 million in supplies had been ordered through the last barge, said Cynthia Ene, the Chamber’s executive director. She added that others were not able to take part in the meeting, so their totals have yet to be added.

The GNWT will continue to run the barging service for at least a couple more years to gather data, according to Schumann.

“When we get enough information after a few years of operation and get this thing stabilized, we’ll have a look at if we’ll make it a Crown corporation, or have a private entity run it on our behalf or are we going to sell it or will we continue to run it through (the department) of Infrastructure.”

A Marine Transportation Services vessel and barge making a delivery in 2017, when Arctic Ocean conditions were much better than they are in the Kitikmeot now. Photo courtesy of the GNWT
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Derek Neary

Derek Neary has been reporting on developments in the North for 18 years. When he's not writing for Nunavut News, he's working on Northern News Services' special publications such as Opportunities North,...