Austin Larocque says he doesn’t know when he may get most of his worldly possessions, currently sitting in a shipping container in Sachs Harbour, N.W.T., after a barge set to arrive in the High Arctic community this season was cancelled.
Larocque moved with his young daughter from Sachs Harbour to Hay River, N.W.T., in July with just two suitcases, hoping to get the bulk of their belongings once the barge returned from the territory’s northernmost community. He said it cost more than $7,000 to purchase a sea can to store and ship their things.
“Pretty much our life is in that sea can,” he said. “Certain things are replaceable, but certain things are not. Certain things you can’t put a price on it.”
Larocque said he is waiting for everything from baby pictures to the tools he needs to make his living as a mechanic. He said he hasn’t been able to get a hold of anyone with Marine Transportation Services, which provides barging services in the territory.
The N.W.T. government announced late last week it was cancelling the annual barge delivery to Sachs Harbour due to bad weather and a late start to the sailing season because of climate change, delayed buoy placement, and flooding in Hay River and Inuvik this spring. CBC reported in July that staffing shortages with the Canadian Coast Guard were responsible for the buoy delay.
The territorial government said a tug and barges will be kept in Paulatuk over the winter due to weather and ice conditions.
Larocque said he feels the N.W.T. government is not taking accountability by blaming the cancellation on climate change.
“It just leaves a sour taste in your mouth the way they did business,” he said.
Many coastal communities in the North rely on annual barges to move freight, food and fuel as they are not connected to the south by road or rail and transporting items by air is costly.
Shelby Lucas, manager of the Ikahuk Co-op in Sachs Harbour, said cancellation of the resupply barge has had a big impact on her community, which is home to just over 100 people.
“Everybody was pretty upset about it,” she said.
The hamlet’s only store has been getting low on some supplies, Lucas said, adding it hasn’t had pop for about five months and it’s possible some cargo on the barge has now frozen.
Several residents are also waiting on snowmobiles.
“A big part of our community is people going out hunting to have food,” Lucas said.
Marine Transportation Services, which was taken over by the N.W.T. government in 2016 after its previous owner filed for bankruptcy, offers barging services from the Port of Hay River to locations along the Mackenzie River and in the western Arctic. It completed marine resupply for nine N.W.T. communities and one Nunavut community this year, along with private contracts.
Jackie Jacobson, member of the legislative assembly for Nunakput, recently questioned in the legislature why Marine Transportation Services did not prioritize community resupply and left it until the end of the shipping season. Before the barge arrived in Paulutuk and Ulukhaktok this year, he said, diapers and other essential goods had to be flown in at a high cost to residents as shelves in the communities were bare.
“The people of the Northwest Territories should be put first,” he said.
Diane Archie, the territory’s minister of infrastructure, said she could not commit to reimbursing those costs, but did promise that residents in Sachs Harbour would not have to pay additional costs to fly items from the barge into the community. She said her department is working to ensure necessary freight and fuel “arrive in a timely manner,” but said there will “have to be some hard conversations on dealing with the oversized freight.”
The N.W.T. government did not respond to a request for further comment.
This is not the first time in recent years goods have had to be flown into communities. The territorial government cancelled barges destined for Kugluktuk and Cambridge Bay in Nunavut and Paulatuk in early October 2018, citing impassable ice conditions. It was later revealed that a bad fuel shipment that had to be returned from Alberta also played a role in delaying the barges. While essential items were flown into the communities others, such as vehicles and construction materials, were stored in Inuvik over winter.
The territorial government quietly settled three lawsuits outside of court this August, which were filed in federal court by two companies in Cambridge Bay and one in Paulatuk seeking damages related to the barge cancellations and claiming their cargo was damaged. The government filed statements of defence and counterclaims in all three cases.
—Emily Blake, The Canadian Press