The mostly-fly in community of Whati, Northwest Territories became permanently connected by an all-season road this past week.
“I’m really excited about the road it’s definitely going to provide more services for Whatì,” says Stephanie Behrens, a traveller on Tłı̨chǫ Hwy 9 that opened at 10 a.m. on Nov. 30. “And looking forward to seeing all the work that is going to be done for the community of Whati.”
Whati is only connected during the winter months when an ice road is available.
Riding alongside Behrens, Violet Camsell-Blondin from Behchokǫ̀ shared the same enthusiasm.
“I’m very happy them. For Whatì people it’s very economical because they spend a lot of money on freight and travelling back and forth to Yellowknife,” Camsell-Blondin said.
The 40-minute flight was costly for residents in the region, with roundtrip airfare from Yellowknife from Whatì coming in at more than $500 per person.
Now, travellers can expect a roughly three-hour commute on a single tank of gas.
Kalvin Lafferty helped build the two-lane, 97-km road and was on location for the opening to help with the surge of eager travellers.
“We know it’s going to be high traffic for the first day. We’re having two minute intervals, we’re trying to space out vehicles for safety because this is the first day it’s being opened,” Lafferty said.
Six km down the southern entrance of the Hwy sits a small crowd was gathered at what’s known as the Migwi camp.
The new Hwy will save Migwi’s hundreds of dollars they would previously had to spend to plow a road to access the cabin.
Bobby Migwi warmly welcomed media to his cabin and told them how his great grandfather had broke trail in the area back in the late 1920s. His family has had a trapline and hauled wood there ever since.
“Whenever the lights are on travellers are welcome to stop in for a visit and a cup of tea,” Migwi said.
In Tłı̨chǫ Yatıì Migwi, he explained how a fire had ravaged the area in 2014 and burnt everything in its path except a single tree.
Now, the tree iis recognized as a spiritual tree, decorated with a photo of Migwi’s late father Joseph.
Tlicho Grand Chief Jackson Lafferty paid the land at the spiritual tree and translated Migwi’s message for media.
“As we gather here as a family we pray to the tree and we did a little ceremony here as he explained we did a little prayer Bobby led the prayer.”
Chief Lafferty called the opening of the highway “a historic day,” and acknowledged all of the work done over the past 30 years by past leaders and Elders, some of whom have passed on.
He noted the safety concerns community members had over travelling long distances on the ice road, which was open a few short weeks of the year.
“Some of the Elders have fear of travelling by planes, a single Otter,” Lafferty said. “Climate change everything is changing around us. The freeze-up takes a while, fear of the thickness of the ice.”
The new highway also connects winter roads to Gamètì and Wekweètì, the only remaining Tłı̨chǫ not connected by permanent road..
The $185 million Tlicho Highway saw partnerships with Indigenous, territorial and federal governments.
With the roughly 530-person community of Whatì no longer cut off by wilderness and water, they’re expecting more tourists to flock to the pristine backdrop of lac la marten.
Jonathan Vandal, office administrator at the hotel in town told APTN News that rooms are booked solid for the next two weeks and he’s hoping for investment into lakeside tours.
“In the warmer season we have people come in and they want to know if we can point them in the direction of anyone who could take them on the lake either on a tour or fishing,” Vandal said. “We don’t have anyone on hand it’s usually just locals.”
Vandal noted the various economic opportunities for the community including the proposed NICO mine, a prospect that had a positive influence on the highway project being given the go-ahead.
“It brings a lot of opportunities both to the community and going out of the community. It opens up the possibility of maybe working abroad and coming back here for the weekend,” he said.