INUVIK, N.W.T. — “I’m older than this town,” Fred Carmichael says as he steers his lumbering Ford F-350 truck through a residential neighbourhood of Inuvik, Northwest Territories. But Carmichael, 81, is among a shrinking generation of Gwich’in who remember a time when this small northern outpost was nothing more than a few tents erected along the Mackenzie River.
Carmichael grew up in his family’s log cabin and worked on his father’s trap lines, eking out a living from the region’s dwindling numbers of fox, hare, wolf, minx and muskrat. He set out on his own when he was 17, and eventually established a small aviation business that still operates today. “We soon realized that in order to survive up here you have to get into some kind of business or find a steady job, which was hard to do,” he said.
The people of the town, like Carmichael, are acutely aware of their ancestral way of life, and many southerners still maintain an outdated view of the North. Yet Inuvik embodies an undeniably industrial character. Heavy machinery is too expensive to transport south after it’s been broken down, so the town’s industrial sector is littered with successive generations of rock crushers, trucks and bulldozers that serve as impromptu museum exhibits.
The town’s attempt to shift toward a more modern economy is perhaps most evident in the proposed $7-billion Mackenzie Gas Project. The joint venture between Imperial Oil Ltd., ExxonMobil Corp., ConocoPhillips Co. and Shell Canada Ltd. was proposed in 2000, and includes a major pipeline that would transport natural gas from a port in the Mackenzie River Delta to markets in Alberta and British Columbia.
But after decades of regulatory delays and volatile commodity prices, the project now seems unlikely to ever go forward, leaving residents of this relatively young town to contemplate an uncertain future.
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