Aaron Campbell and his brother were sailing from Yellowknife to Hay River, Northwest Territories, earlier this fall when they got stuck on a sandbar in the shallow waters of Great Slave Lake, near the mouth of the River Hay.
The pair spent the night on their boat and Campbell said when lifeguards tried to pull them off the sandbar their ropes kept breaking. They were freed the following day by a tugboat.
“It was pretty intense,” Campbell said. “It was all day.”
He’s not the only one stuck in Hay River Harbor for the past few months.
The Canadian Coast Guard vessel Dumit was removing channel buoys at the end of the navigation season on October 15, when it became stuck on a sandbar. The ship’s cargo had to be offloaded onto another while the tug helped free the Dumit the next evening. Two barges also became stranded in August and had to be towed to shore.
Calls have intensified to dredge the river channels leading to Great Slave Lake to remove accumulated sediment and deepen the waterway. This is a particular problem in the eastern channel, where shipping lines and most fishermen come in and out of the harbour.
Residents, fishers and politicians say if not completed it could have far-reaching effects on the fishing industry, shipping and flooding.
“If we don’t fix the problem, it will affect every business, every landlord, every aspect of life in Hay River,” said Jane Groenewegen, who represented Hay River South in the Territorial Legislative Assembly from 1999 to 2015.
The “Backbone” of Hay River
Hay River has one of Canada’s largest inland ports.
Groenewegen said shipping and related industries are his “backbone.”
The harbor is crucial for fishermen and Canadian Coast Guard operations, in addition to housing an office of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. It also connects southern roads and railroads to supply barges traveling to coastal regions along the Mackenzie River and the western Arctic.
Campbell, who is Dene from Yellowknives and lives in Hay River, is looking to enter the territory’s fishing industry. He said he was worried about what might happen when he returned to shore with his boat laden with fish if water levels remained low.
“I’m definitely for dredging,” he said.
Jamie Linington of the NWT Fisherman’s Federation and the Freshwater Fish Harvesters Association Inc. said low water is a safety issue because it makes waves worse when boats come in and the bottom can damage boats and affect the livelihoods of fishers.
Linington said the federal government “grossly ignores the North” and has underfunded freshwater ports.
“Our port is terrible,” she said. “I think that’s just Canada’s systemic, usual pattern of how it views industries and people.”
Linington said having a vibrant fishing industry helps the overall Canadian economy, strengthens food security and sovereignty, and benefits tourism with better access to the lake.
She added that the commercial fishing industry in the Northwest Territories is largely made up of Indigenous fishers who practice intergenerational practices that survived colonization.
A new approximately $13 million Canadian Food Inspection Agency-certified fish processing plant is scheduled to open in Hay River this spring.
Hay River Mayor Kandis Jameson thinks harbor dredging could also help with spring flooding.
The town and neighboring K’atl’odeeche First Nation experienced their worst flooding on record in May, resulting in more than $174 million in damages.
“If we have a clog at the entrance or exit of our river in the harbor … the water needs somewhere to go,” Jameson said, adding that when the water is shallow it freezes. down to the ground.
Calls for dredging for over a decade
Municipal and territorial politicians based in Hay River have been calling for dredging for more than a decade. Jameson said it was a “political hot potato”.
The Government of the Northwest Territories has long insisted that dredging is a federal responsibility, but the Canadian government no longer has a program or funding for it.
The Coast Guard routinely dredged the channels of commercial vessels, including Hay River. Then the national program ended in 1997 and dredging became the responsibility of the private sector and port operators, with the exception of the international waterways of the Great Lakes.
A municipal report indicates that between 1961 and 1996, an average of 21,842 cubic meters of sediment was dredged from the Hay River East Channel and docks each year. Since then, it happens occasionally.
The Town of Hay River has sold its aging equipment and does not have the funds to perform full-scale dredging.
Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson said the territorial government’s efforts to secure federal support for dredging over the years have been insufficient.
“It wasn’t real effort,” he said. “What the feds are going to be looking for…is they’re looking for a business case.”
Simpson said he hopes the territorial government will consider dredging the ice this winter using backhoes. He fears that if the port infrastructure is not maintained, the city could lose the shipping industry, which would be devastating.
A Canada Transportation Act review report released in February 2016 recommended renewal of federal funds for dredging at Hay River.
Wally Schumann, former infrastructure minister and member of the Hay River South legislature, said he fears the lack of dredging will increase shipping costs because barges won’t be able to carry as much fuel or freight.
Current Infrastructure Minister Diane Archie recently sent letters to federal ministers stressing the importance of restoring the port. The department previously submitted a proposal under Transport Canada’s 2020 Oceans Protection Plan funding proposal to remove sediment that impedes navigation to the Marine Transportation Services shipping terminal, but that proposal was been rejected.
Michael McLeod, the Liberal MP for the Northwest Territories, said he had met with several fisheries ministers since 2015, but their response remained that the federal government does not have a dredging program.
He said he hopes the territorial government will develop a business case that it can present to the federal government to try to find the funds available.
“We have to find a solution to this.”