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Ballooning costs threaten St. Vincent de Paul North of 60 Project

Low water level halts barge traffic, adds $144K to shipping price to northern communities

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SSVP) is dealing with unprecedented financial hardship that ballooned to $144,000 after the N.W.T. closed the Mackenzie River to barge traffic in May.

Since 2010, St. Vincent de Paul (with a chapter in St. Albert) has been committed to the North of 60 Project, a program designed to provide the necessities of life to northern communities in need and uses the Mackenzie River to transport goods to a community in the North.

Climate change has forced the closure because of extremely low water levels, a drop not seen since 1934. Since the Mackenzie River is an important transportation and supply hub, like Queen Elizabeth II Highway between Edmonton and Calgary, the drop poses significant delivery issues.

This year, the volunteer-run project plans to deliver nine 20-foot sea cans packed with food, clothing, recreational supplies, and household goods to far northern communities dealing with high prices and limited economic opportunities.

Currently sea cans are shipped to nine communities: Fort McPherson, Aklavik, Tuktoyaktuk, Inuvik, Tsiigehtchgic, Fort Good Hope, Paulatuk, Sachs Harbour and Ulukhaktok.

Traditionally, sea cans were trucked to Hay River. At the Hay River Terminal, a N.W.T. Marine Transportation Services government grant covered all river barge costs up the Mackenzie. The grant also paid for ocean barge costs to cross the Beaufort Sea to communities above the Arctic Circle.

The N.W.T. announcement of the suspension means cargo traffic heading for northern hamlets and small towns must be diverted and trucked on highways. The new delivery route takes sea cans from Hay River to Whitehorse in the Yukon and up the Dempster Highway before reaching Tuktoyaktuk.

Sea cans for the original project travelled on average 1,300 kilometres at a cost of $3,000 per container. The new delivery system requires containers to travel 4,000 km at a cost of $16,000 per sea can before reaching their destination.

The transportation cost of $144,000 is a financial hit the charity was not expecting. Eight containers are already packed and sitting at Manitoulin Transport in Acheson waiting to be delivered in the fall.

“We’re going to find some way of paying this, but unless we get subsidies or government help, we simply can’t afford to do this next year. We’re working with 100 per cent donations and 100 per cent volunteers. We have fundraised, but we don’t have that kind of money,” said Linda Tutt, St. Vincent de Paul’s St. Albert coordinator.

The containers are filled with free, donated pallets of canned and dry food, household goods, clothing, snowsuits, diapers, baby clothes, quilts, feminine products, toiletries, toothbrushes and paste, skates, hockey sticks, fabric, sewing machines and craft supplies, among other items.

“I need to stress that we collaborate with them on what they need — not what we think they need,” Tutt said.

Ulukhaktok, St. Albert’s partner

During the last few months, Tutt, who joined SSVP in 2016, spent long hours in her garage packing boxes destined for Ulukhaktok. The Inuvialuit hamlet of about 450 people is located on the western side of Victoria Island north of the Arctic Circle.

“They are terrific hunters with a love of land and culture. You watch the dancers and the drummers and it’s mesmerizing,” said Tutt, who travelled to Ulukhaktok in 2018.

The tiny village is built around an inlet that features modern housing, a post office, one grocery store, a recreational arena/teen centre and a school that offers a lunch program. Ulukhaktok houses a food bank and there is a nurse’s station but no doctor. A small landing strip suffices as an airport and two RCMP officers man the police station.

There is also a Catholic church that has been boarded up for several decades.

“The residents didn’t want the building torn down. So, the Catholic diocese gave them the land title. Structurally the church is sound, and they want to renovate it and turn it into a museum,” Tutt said.

“Since the Northwest Passage has opened, the Arctic waters have become more navigable and cruise ships are stopping in. They (residents) bring drummers and dancers for the passengers’ entertainment, and Zodiacs bring passengers into the hamlet for the day. They’d like to have a museum and a market to show off their cultural heritage.”

In addition to sending a seacan filled home necessities, the St. Albert chapter has also taken it upon themselves to fill a second container with construction supplies for the proposed museum renovation. This year SSVP is focused on supplying materials for the church’s exterior: a metal roof, doors, windows, siding and hardware.

SSVP’s long range plan was to ship materials for the church’s interior next year. However, the exorbitant costs to ship the seacans puts the entire North of 60 Project in jeopardy.

“This exemplifies what some of the Northern Arctic communities need to deal with. That barge is their lifeline.”

Anyone who would like to offer a donation or request more information can call 780-651-6486 or email [email protected].

Anna Borowiecki

About the Author: Anna Borowiecki

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