Trailblazing: Cultural Landscapes Under Construction in Canada’s North

The largest undeveloped region left on a shrinking planet, Canada’s zone north of 60 occupies over 70 percent of the country’s area and plays a substantial role in defining the nation’s identity to the world. Yet, with less than one percent of the nation’s population, the region is often taken for granted. The North has traditionally been perceived and used as a resource-laden frontier, an area to be colonized by inroads from the South. Only in the past 25 years have these approaches to development policy shifted, with growing decision-making power being given to local communities and resident professionals. Designers and planners south of 60 may glean an invaluable perspective on their country by developing an awareness of some of the opportunities and challenges faced by their Northern colleagues, who work within a unique cultural and physical landscape still undergoing important changes.

As the first major road to the North, the Alaska Highway is one example of the “frontier” mentality with which many early projects in the North were undertaken. Under wartime threats of Pacific domination by Japan, the United States initiated and funded the construction of the highway in 1942 as an emergency overland supply route to its Alaskan outposts.

Like many wartime projects, plans for the highway were made in secrecy, and with little knowledge of the terrain over which the road would pass. Its path was chosen for immediate military strategic value, in disregard of prewar proposals for routes North that were based on topographic and economic development concerns. Consequently, the highway’s path from Edmonton to Fairbanks, Alaska, would carve a trail through an unsurveyed terrain of wilderness, muskeg, and permafrost. In parallel with its construction, the airfields of the Northwest Staging Route and the CANOL pipeline between Norman Wells and Whitehorse further opened routes through the North.

Traversing the vast landscapes of the North has always required substantial infrastructure, and entails costs that have usually been significantly underestimated. The construction of the 2,400 kilometres of gravel road represented an investment of over $130 million–at a time when skilled workmen made $1.50 an hour and oil sold for less than $1 a barrel. An immense labour force was also involved, with over 20,000 soldiers and construction workers along with 11,000 pieces of heavy equipment, descending upon the sparsely populated territory.

While little thought was devoted to the long-term effects of the highway at its conception, the landscape-scaled operation would give new direction and impetus to the region’s development. Construction camps and maintenance yards sometimes evolved into new communities, or reinforced the importance of existing trading posts and seasonal First Nations camps to which they were often adjacent.

In the short run, highway construction activity overwhelmed local infrastructures and put tremendous strain on communities in its path. In the long run, many of these communities were left with a legacy of infrastructure instrumental to their later development. In Dawson Creek and other settlements, water mains, sewage lines, roads, and community facilities constructed for wartime use became the basis of postwar municipal services. Communities such as Haines Junction were founded by construction activity, and remain highway-dominated communities to this day. At a larger scale, highway development shifted the urban centre of the North from the gold-rush town of Dawson City, which was bypassed by the highway, to Whitehorse, the U.S. Army’s chosen regional headquarters, a change confirmed by the change of the territorial capital to the latter in 1953.

The broad-reaching “Alaska Highway effect” was typical of megaprojects that reorganized the North in years to come. The construction of Roads to Resources and the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line similarly left new infrastructural paths and regional settlements in their wake. Resource development interests from the South would also prove powerful influences. In the Yukon, for instance, the discovery of a large lead-zinc deposit in the Tintina Trench led to the construction of the territory’s first planned “new town” at Faro in 1969. The town remains to this day, even through the mine has shut down.

However, the seemingly positive outcomes of these major projects may have been damaging on a local level, and First Nations communities were particularly affected. Prior to the war, explains Northern land-use planner Ken Johnson in a recent Plan Canada article, many First Nations groups had subsisted through hunting and gathering practices, closely tied to flexible social structures and mobility over vast hunting grounds. As the highway began to open up the region to southern intervention, the Canadian government initiated often aggressive efforts to relocate First Nations people in permanent settlements along the highway for ease of administration–a displacement which would sharply conflict with traditional nomadic ways of life. In policies such as these, native and non-native local peoples alike had little, if any, input in decisions which would affect the structure, administration, and development of their own communities.

Only since the 1970s have large-scale restructurings of power and responsibility begun returning decision-making powers to local communities, through land claim settlements which have ranged from regional agreements based on traditional use and occupancy, to the division of the Northwest Territories and the creation of Nunavut. The settlement of land claims has included a range of self-governing powers and co-management agreements, particularly in the areas of land and resource management. This has helped to turn the focus on the broader need to justify decisions locally and to respond to current issues with an underlying co-management philosophy. Local land use plans created through sustainability-oriented planning are providing frameworks for ensuring that proposed developments benefit communities in the present without damaging future resources, support local economies, and avoid conflict with traditional uses of lands and waters.

In conjunction with community-based planning processes becoming more common, a growing resident base of credible professionals, both native and non-native, are choosing to live and work north of 60. Facilitating the process of community-based management, these professionals work closely with the small, often isolated settlements of the North, in long-term processes that are based on gaining the trust of local groups, building community capacity, and gradually cultivating an understanding of local needs, visions, and politics.

Although each case faces unique challenges, the development of Haines Junction offers one example of how community-based management strategies have taken form. Within a region that hosted seasonal camps and trading settlements for centuries, Haines Junction was first founded as a village to service the construction of the Alaska Highway. The village has since prospered relative to other rural communities in the Yukon, with tourism to the nearby Kluane National Park and Reserve and employment with government services playing important roles in the local economy.

Roughly half of Haines Junction’s population is composed of Champagne Aishihik First Nations, whose land claims and self-government agreements give them a co-management role in their traditional territorial lands. As a result, planning in the area takes place under separate village and local First Nations administrations, who have developed flexible, cooperative working arrangements to ensure that proposed native developments will be in conformity with municipal legislation, or conversely, to adjust zoning laws to accommodate proposals.

Under the village’s administration, a community development committee established last June formally involves local residents in planning decisions. With members including business owners, long-term residents, and a First Nations
representative, the group makes recommendations to council on issues ranging from signage and landscaping, to territorial concerns such as large-scale agricultural land developments.

Though planning for Haines Junction has long been open to public input, the formal creation of the committee marks a new phase in community involvement. “Residents are taking more of an active interest in their environment than in the past,” says the village’s chief administrative officer, Colin Dean.

While the infrastructural routes that founded many of Yukon’s communities were blazed from the South, these same communities are now being shaped by local input and expertise. Through this process, they stand to develop in ways that promote long-term social, economic, and environmental sustainability–which can only come from the intimate knowledge and commitment to a place that is understood as a homeland, rather than as a frontier.

Elsa Lam is currently pursuing a doctorate at Columbia University in New York.