OTD: Dempster Highway opens

On today’s date in 1979, the Dempster Highway, Canada’s only all-weather road across the Arctic Circle, was officially opened.

First championed by former prime minister John Diefenbaker more than 20 years earlier, the Dempster Highway traces its roots back to the August 1959 oil discovery in the Eagle Plains area. What began as Yukon Territorial Road No. 11 in Dawson City would eventually grow to become the most northerly major road project to date.

“We intend to start a vast roads program for the Yukon and the Northwest Territories which will open up for exploration vast new oil and mineral areas—30 million acres,” Diefenbaker said during a campaign speech in Winnipeg on Feb. 12, 1954.

“We will launch a $75 million federal-provincial program to build access roads. This is the vision.”

The Dempster Highway crosses the Richardson Mountains (background) in Yukon.

It was part of Diefenbaker’s “Roads to Resources” platform; however, frequent setbacks delayed the highway’s completion, which came in 1978 at a total cost of $132 million.

The highway is named after William Dempster, a member of the North-West Mounted Police (a predecessor to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) in the Yukon Territory during the early 20th century.

Today, the 740-kilometre journey from Dawson City to Inuvik, Northwest Territories, offers “incredible scenery, wide-open spaces and remote beauty,” according to the Dempster Highway website.

A 1998 Dempster Highway stamp depicts the Yukon portion of the 740-kilometre highway.

1998 STAMP

In 1998, Canada Post issued a 45-cent stamp (Scott #1739) featuring the Dempster Highway as part of its second issue of scenic Canadian highways.

The next year, it continued the three-year “Scenic Highways” series with a 46-cent stamp (SC #1782) depicting the Northwest Territories’ portion of the Dempster Highway.

“Acquiring the panoramic images was the most challenging part of the project,” said Lou Cable, designer of the 1998 stamp. “After sending photographers across vast distances at the mercy of Mother Nature, we certainly appreciate the massive size, geological contrast and climatic range of our country. This is never more evident than in this year’s stamps.”

A 1999 stamp shows the Dempster Highway running through the Northwest Territories.


The 1999 Dempster Highway stamp shows the border between the Yukon and Northwest Territories, known as Route 8.

The Dempster route actually crosses the Arctic Circle and ends at Inuvik, making it the most northern public highway on this continent. As in previous years, the 1999 stamp incorporated panoramic photographs of the highway with signs designating the route. Close-cropped images depict the local culture and history.

Both stamps were printed by Ashton-Potter on Tullis Russell coated paper and have general tagging along each side.

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