By Brian Dunn

It was another challenging season in the Far North for Desgagnés Transarctik, but not nearly as bad as last year when Arctic shipping was plagued by unusual stationary ice and wind conditions that delayed the delivery of several shiploads of cargo.

“This year was not as bad in Iqaluit and Pangnirtung, but there was lots of ice early in the season in Ungava Bay where we lost precious days,” said Waguih Rayes, General Manager, Desgagnés Transarctik. “It was a similar situation on the East Coast of Hudson’s Bay.”

The company usually delivers cargo to Resolute Bay in mid-August, but the community was only accessible in mid-September, another costly delay. “When people talk about global warming, it’s not always good news, because it can cause a shift in wind and ice patterns.”

Desgagnés is the preferred carrier for the Baffinland Iron Mines Corp., said Mr. Rayes, where the construction phase is completed and production is ramping up. It is one of three mining projects it’s supplying in the north. The others are Agnico Eagle’s gold mine 80 kilometres northwest of Baker Lake, Nunavut and TMAC Resources Inc.’s gold project in Hope Bay, Nunavut. “But we mustn’t forget our bread and butter, which is servicing 26 out of 27 communities in Nunavut,” noted Mr. Rayes. “We deploy six ships, including four heavy lift vessels with a 110-tonne limit per crane, due to the heavy mining equipment and barges we transport.”

One area where business has dropped off is the federal government’s new housing projects in northern communities which are in limbo, but there are certain opportunities in the decontamination of old radar sites, said Mr. Rayes.

And the Iqaluit deep water port (officially called the Iqaluit Marine Infrastructure Project) is going ahead, backed by $63.7 million in federal funding. The facilities could be open by 2020, according to government officials. Geotechnical studies for the project took place in mid-October. The project is to include a deep water port, with one fixed berth and a secondary off-loading wharf. Improvements to the city’s breakwater to allow dock space and 24-hour access to open water, are also planned.

Asked if Desgagnés would be interested in taking over the Mackenzie River business of Northern Transportation Co. Ltd. (NTCL) which faces an uncertain future, Mr. Rayes wasn’t sure if his company wanted to operate at the other end of the Arctic. “They (the communities) would be better served by a Mackenzie system, because our unit prices would be higher with lower volumes than we’re accustomed to. In addition, the window of opportunity for shipping in the Peel Sound of the Northwest Territories is limited to around mid-August to the end of September. But there’s always room to work with tug and barge services if somebody wants something from Eastern Canada.”

Saddled with over $130 million in debt, NTCL of Hay River, N.W.T. is insolvent and communities along the Mackenzie River are wondering who will barge in their goods next season. While there is another barging company serving the Mackenzie River, Cooper Barging Service of Fort Nelson, it doesn’t operate in the Western Arctic. Its main route is between Fort Simpson and Norman Wells. It is not known if it has plans or has the capacity to expand its operations if NTCL cannot continue to operate next season. Cooper Barging did not reply to phone calls or emails.

NTCL traditionally resupplies ten communities in the Northwest Territories with at least one barge a year between June and October. It also has a fuel supply contract from the N.W.T. government for homes, vehicles and the aviation sector in most of the communities. NTCL is owned by Norterra, an Inuvialuit-owned holding company which has been hit hard by climate change which has lowered water levels along the Mackenzie and by the demise of the oil and gas business, reducing both industrial and residential consumers. The increasingly accessible Northwest Passage has also increased competition.

A call for tenders for 2017 has been issued by the N.W.T. government with a Nov. 4 deadline. The government is confident that someone will take over the business. “We’ve had at least 40 parties who picked up a tender application and I’m convinced there will be more than one serious offer,” said John Vandenberg, Assistant Deputy Minister, N.W.T. Public Work and Services.