Transportation in the North

Joseph Patrick Dunlavy, Industry Accounts Division, Monica Lipai and Gord Baldwin, Transportation Division

Life in Canada's North can be different than life in the rest of the country and these differences extend to transportation choices and options. Efficient movement of people and goods is needed for society and the economy to function. The usual means of transporting goods and people are not necessarily available in the North due to the harsh climate.

Northern residents have a high propensity to travel by plane and have higher household expenditures for air travel. In Canada, just over a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, with the bulk of the emissions coming from road sources.1,2 However, air travel is more greenhouse gas intensive than driving and other types of transport.

International Polar Year

This paper was prepared as a contribution to International Polar Year (IPY), a program of science, research and education focused on the Arctic and the Antarctic, running from March 2007 to March 2009. For further information on the IPY see the IPY Canada website at

Roads and rail less common in the North
Marine transportation
Private Vehicle Use

Roads and rail less common in the North

One of the more important differences between Canada's northern territories and the rest of the country is the lack of road networks (Table 1). In 2003, approximately 1% of Canada's total road network was in the three territories, and the majority of these roads were unpaved. With only 0.3% of Canada's population living in the North,3 this may not be so surprising, but lack of highway access means that the massive expanse of the Arctic, which covers almost 40% of Canada's landmass, is largely inaccessible by car and truck. Nunavut has fewer road networks than the other territories, again due to the geography of the region and the great distances between small communities. A large portion of Nunavut is composed of islands, although there is a significant portion that is part of the mainland as well.

Table 1 Length of Canada's public road network, 2003

Rail lines are equally scarce in the Arctic as the small northern population is widely dispersed. This, coupled with the climate, makes it difficult to set up the infrastructure needed for rail transport to work efficiently. Of Canada's three northern territories, only the Northwest Territories (N.W.T.) has operating rail lines, accounting for about 0.2% of the total rail lines in Canada (Table 2).

Table 2 Percentage distribution of Canada's rail network by province and territory, 2007

Since northern residents have relatively little access to these two modes of transportation, other means must be used to bring in supplies, move merchandise, and provide for the travel needs of individuals. As such, a greater emphasis is placed on marine and air transport to meet these needs.

Marine transportation

Businesses in the North make use of marine transport services to ship goods, although the three territories are not able to take advantage of this to the same extent. Nunavut has more access to marine transportation than the other two northern territories. Approximately half of the population of the N.W.T. lives in Yellowknife, which does not border on the ocean. Whitehorse in the Yukon, accounts for just over three-quarters of the territory's population, and no regular marine service is available.

Ports in Nunavut handled over 150 thousand tonnes of cargo from domestic ships in 2006—roughly four times the amount of cargo handled in the N.W.T (Table 3). In addition to the larger amount of cargo passing through Nunavut's ports, the territory also has a larger number of active ports compared to the N.W.T. There were no cargo shipments reported from the Yukon.

Table 3 Domestic shipping—tonnage handled, by territory, 2006

In Nunavut, 98% of the tonnage handled is related to unloading marine cargo. In the Northwest Territories, 32% of the activity is related to unloading cargo, while 68% is for loading cargo.

Approximately 60% of the cargo moving through the N.W.T. goes through Tuktoyaktuk, which is located on the northern shore of the N.W.T. close to the mouth of the Mackenzie River. Cargo movements by ship are more evenly dispersed throughout the various ports in Nunavut, with a large concentration in Iqaluit.


People in the territories often rely on aviation when going any considerable distance to, from and between northern destinations due to the absence of other alternatives. Driving is an option in a few regions, such as the area surrounding Whitehorse, but many communities are not linked by roads. To show how much the northern capitals rely on aviation for the movement of people, a comparison between the total number of passengers traveling by air and population is given in Table 4, with selected cities from the provinces presented for comparison.

The number of passengers getting on or off aircraft as a proportion of the city's population is much higher in Iqaluit and Yellowknife than in cities where other modes of transport are readily available. Although it has a population of just over 6,000, Iqaluit had over 110,000 passengers enplane and deplane from its airport in 2006. While the aggregate number of enplaned and deplaned passengers is higher in cities in the south, Iqaluit had the highest ratio of passengers per capita, at 17.9.

Table 4 Propensity to travel by airplane, 2006

The busiest airport in Canada, Toronto's Lester Pearson International, has a ratio of only 5.8 passengers per capita, which approaches that of Whitehorse but is far below that of Iqaluit or Yellowknife. Cities that act as aviation hubs such as Toronto, Halifax, Calgary and Vancouver, tend to have a higher ratio because of the increased number of connecting flights, but even this upward effect does not boost these ratios higher than those found in Iqaluit and Yellowknife.

The number of takeoffs and landings at airports in Iqaluit, Whitehorse and Yellowknife has increased in recent years (Table 5). Aircraft movements increased for every year, with the exception of 2005, when the number declined slightly.

Table 5 Total aircraft takeoffs and landings, Iqaluit, Whitehorse and Yellowknife, 2003 to 2007

Table 5 also presents the number of takeoffs and landings broken down by itinerant movements of aircraft, that is, flights with another airport as a destination/origin, and local movements (trips where the same airport serves as the origin and the destination, often flight training). There has been more variability in the local movements than in the itinerant aircraft movements.

Private vehicle use

The Survey of Household Spending shows the impact of lower usage of private vehicles for transportation and greater dependency on air travel. In 2005, average household spending on transportation was higher in the Yukon and the Northwest Territories than the Canadian average (Table 6). The difference is especially large for air travel—households in the three territories spent 3 to 4 times more than the Canadian average.

Nunavut is a bit of an exception with total transportation costs trailing the rest of Canada, in large part due to the smaller average expenditure on private transportation, which includes purchasing and leasing costs for cars and trucks as well as operating costs such as gasoline and insurance. However, Nunavut has very few roads and therefore little reason for expenditures on private automobiles. Household spending on recreational vehicles and associated services, which would include expenditures on boats, outboard motors, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, are all higher in the Yukon, Nunavut and Northwest Territories than the Canadian average.4

Table 6 Household spending on transportation, Canada and the North, 2005

The lack of roads is also reflected in the small percentage of the motor vehicles registered in the North. In 2007, the three territories had less than one-half of one percent of the road motor vehicles registered in Canada (Table 7).

Table 7 Road motor vehicles registrations, Canada and the North, 2007


Life in the Arctic requires adjustments to circumstances brought forth by the climate, the geography, and the distances. Transportation services are no different. As is evident from the data, the cold climate as well as the great distances and the thin markets due to small populations, make the construction and maintenance of road or rail infrastructure difficult. Not surprisingly, there is also a lack of road vehicles in the North. Without rail and road options, people rely more on other modes of transportation such as marine and aviation.

Nunavut and the Northwest Territories use marine transportation to deliver cargo, with most of the activity in Nunavut. The Yukon does not register any port activity.

All of the territories use aviation and a large number of people make use of its services. The territories display some of the highest propensities to use aviation travel in Canada relative to the population. The dependence on aviation is reflected in the high average expenditures on airplane transportation by households in the North.


  1. Transport Canada, 2008, Transportation in Canada 2007: An Overview, Catalogue no. TP 14816E, p. 10.
  2. Environment Canada, 2008, National Inventory Report 1990-2006: Greenhouse Gases Sources and Sinks in Canada, (accessed December 10, 2008).
  3. Statistics Canada, 2007, Population and Dwelling Count Highlight Tables, 2006 Census of Population, Catalogue no. 97-550-XWE2006002.
  4. Statistics Canada CANSIM table 203-0010, accessed February 8, 2009.