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Reduced toll revenue tarnishes NWT bridge project on eve of grand opening

CBC NewsEye on the Arctic
Elizabeth McMillan, CBC News | Eye on the Arctic photo

People in the community of Fort Providence in Canada's Northwest Territories are preparing for the grand opening of the Deh Cho Bridge on Friday, but there is still some bitterness about what could have been.

Some in the community are skeptical the bridge will change life there for the better.

For decades, people in the community of about 700 have been talking about building a bridge across the Mackenzie River.

The bridge got the green light in 2007. The band and the Métis council were originally running the project and planned to collect millions in toll revenue through the Deh Cho Bridge Corporation.

But that all changed when the Department of Transportation kicked the corporation off the project in February 2010.

The community signed a new benefits agreement with the territorial government. Instead of getting about $41 million over 35 years, it will now receive about $7 million.

"Fifty million dollars — wow, boy, the big return on it just made it so enticing that I think people just got sucked into it," said Sam Gargan, a former chief of the community.

Gargan was the chief of Fort Providence's Deh Gah Gotie band in 2002 when the idea of a bridge partnership started taking shape. At the time, the bridge was thought to cost a quarter of its final price tag of $202 million. He said the promised toll revenue would have been a huge benefit for Fort Providence.

Gargan doesn't think the community has seen many benefits from the project.

Cell service a priority for current chief

Current Fort Providence chief Wayne Sabourin hopes the money that will come from the benefit agreement every year can go into economic development and training programs.

He added that it could go into social programs as well, especially now that people may have more access to alcohol and drugs.

Sabourin said that with 24-hour road access, cell service is a top priority.

"With the weather, there's going to be a few breakdowns and accidents with bison. There has to be some kind of service," he said.

The community has yet to decide how it will spend the $200,000 a year it will receive starting next April. Up until now, its received about $8,000 a month and that has gone into running a bridge office in the community.

Gargan worries the money they will get from the agreement won't make a dent in unemployment or the social issues they face.

About 20 community members a year have worked on the bridge project since construction began four years ago.

"Maybe about five percent of the population here had really benefitted from employment over there. As far as business opportunity, absolutely nothing appeared in that area," said Gargan.

The community is preparing a celebration to mark the bridge opening, as well as a new chapter in its history.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.