Indigenous Sovereignty and the Mackenzie Gas Project

By Macdonald Stainsby


May 2006

THE NATIONS THAT CONTROL THE largest oil reserves outside of Saudi Arabia—-and I�m not talking about Iraq or Afghanistan—-have seen their sovereignty violated and their most valuable resource taken from them for the benefit of corporations working hand-in-glove with an occupying power. I’m talking about the Dene and the Inuvialuit indigenous to northern Canada. These Arctic and sub-Arctic indigenous nations stand to be affected by the proposed MacKenzie Gas Project, a 1200 kilometre pipeline that, once in place, would feed the vast energy needs of the Alberta tar sands industry.

The tar sands already produce about forty percent of Canadian crude oil (see “Nigeria of the North: Tar Sands Frenzy Threatens Alberta Environment,” Briarpatch, February 2006), but to keep up with growing demand, the industry will require a great deal of energy to separate the oil from the sand. The companies who have staked their claim in these sands are looking north for that energy, to the natural gas reserves of the Beaufort Sea and adjoining regions—-the largest such untapped reserves of natural gas on the planet.

The proposed Imperial Oil-led MacKenzie Gas Project seeks to use this natural gas, the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, to refine the bitumen into oil, the dirtiest fossil fuel. Economically, the plan is airtight: the gas will be sold after transport and make a profit for up to twenty years. In terms of human health, the environment, and the cultural survival of the affected nations, however, this plan is a disaster.

THE PROPOSED MACKENZIE GAS Project would stretch from the Beaufort Delta to the northern border of Alberta, and would be the largest such industrial project in Canada�s history. Before the tar-sands-derived crude is used to operate even a single lawn mower, however, the whole process will have already doubled Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, rendering moot all discussions of achieving our Kyoto treaty obligations.

Any developments in the Mackenzie Valley must follow a distinct environmental review process, as established though the the Gwich’in and Sahtu land claims in the Northwest Territories. The Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board, consisting of half indigenous and half federal and territorial government representatives, assesses the environmental impacts of development projects and makes recommendations to the federal Minister. In August of 2004, the Minister of the Environment, in agreement with the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board and the Inuvialuit Game Council, appointed a Joint Review Panel for the MacKenzie Gas Project. The Joint Review Panel consists of four indigenous community members and three white professionals (a lawyer, a geographer and a geologist) who will evaluate the impacts of the project on the environment and lives of the people in the area.

In recent months, the Joint Review Panel public hearings have begun traversing the communities of Dene and Inuvialuit up and down the Mackenzie Valley. These hearings are a hollow shell of the last such hearings, held from 1975-77 and chaired by then-Justice Thomas R. Berger in what was to be known as the Berger Inquiry. In that initial inquiry, Dene up and down the valley and elsewhere in the Northwest Territories were almost unanimous in their opposition to the project. At that time, the panel traveled to each village, and stayed for as many days as were needed to hear the submissions of elders. Today, the hearings have earmarked less than a day for the most affected communities, and speakers are limited to fifteen minutes each.

Many of the concerns raised, however, remain unchanged. For many northerners, caribou and fish remain central to their ability to provide sustenance to their families and maintain their way of life. Some people fear the disruptions that development could herald: of a sudden massive inflow of money coinciding with the destruction of the traditional economy. While extensive resource-extraction bestows short-term gains at the cost of long-term sustainability, traditional practices have long maintained both the people and the land.

On August 5, 1975 in Fort Good Hope, then-chief Frank T’Seleie said to the Berger Inquiry:

“We know that our grandchildren will speak a language that is their heritage, that has been passed on from before time. We know they will share their wealth and not hoard it, or keep it to themselves. We know they will look after their old people and respect them for their wisdom. We know they will look after this land and protect it and that five hundred years from now someone with skin my colour and moccasins on his feet will climb up the Ramparts and rest and look over the river and feel that he too has a place in the universe, and he will thank the same spirits that I thank, that his ancestors have looked after his land well, and he will be proud to be a Dene.

“It is for this unborn child, Mr. Berger, that my nation will stop the pipeline. It is so that this unborn child can know the freedom of this land that I am willing to lay down my life.”

Until very recently, the image southerners have been fed is a united indigenous population supportive of the proposed Mackenzie Gas Project and at loggerheads with environmentalists. The Northwest Territorial government trumpets that the pipeline could open the whole western Arctic to industrial development, and the project could provide up to 20,000 person-years of employment in the region, as well as lucrative returns from increasingly scarce gas resources. As indigenous communities have long been impoverished by development that has long excluded their interests and degraded their traditional livelihoods, now many indigenous leaders clamour for the opportunity to share in the bounty being stripped from their lands. This is exemplified by the existence of the Aboriginal Pipeline Group, a subsidized portion of the project involving some of the leaderships of the Inuvialuit (Inuit), Gwich’in (Dene) and Sahtu (Dene) nations (Frank T’Seleie himself is now one of the Aboriginal Pipeline Group’s leading proponents).

However, since the beginning of the contemporary hearings, there are indications that some community members are questioning rather than deferring to the judgment of their leaders. In an open letter to The Yellowknifer, Roberta A. Alexie wrote on February 6, 2006:

“When I think about the pipeline, all I see for my future are problems. And I see leaders standing by and not helping our people. Money seems to be the only issue here. What about the conditions of our communities? The money will not last forever, but our people will be here for generations. We have a beautiful land and the power to protect it. Why are we going to put a pipeline through it? Why are we going to destroy whatever habitat we have for the sake of a pipeline? I don’t think any of this is worth the money that the governments or the industrial corporations will give.”

For years, the wildcard in the Crown’s efforts to secure access for the pipeline has been the lack of a final settlement between the Crown and the Deh Cho (Dene) nation. Forty percent of the pipeline would traverse the territory of the Deh Cho, who have been the strongest opponents of the proposed pipeline. A previous Deh Cho lawsuit claiming the pipeline environmental review failed to adequately account for Deh Cho interests was settled last summer for $31.5 million, but a new lawsuit was launched last month challenging a January decision by the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board.

A year ago, the proposed MacKenzie Gas Project had been required to negotiate access and benefit agreements with the Deh Cho communities directly. But the January ruling of the Review Board reversed this requirement following discussions between the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and Imperial Oil. Many Deh Cho perceive their exclusion from these meetings as a violation of the government’s duty to consult with indigenous nations (even with nations where there is no “final settlement”) before moving ahead with development.

THE MACKENZIE VALLEY IS ONE OF the few primarily untouched pristine areas left on Turtle Island. Should it go through, the MacKenzie Gas Project would be not the end of development for the valley, but the beginning. As old natural gas fields run dry, new fields will need to be set up. Pipelines and new highways will open up other development schemes, from hydro projects to mining.

For thirty years the Dene have been resisting attempts to subvert their sovereignty, and now, at the eleventh hour of the proposed pipeline, many have begun to question the entire process of industrializing the North for the benefit of southern oil companies. For them, the social and environmental costs are simply too high. As Tom Laviolette of Hay River, Northwest Territories, wrote on April 3, 2006:

“If this pipeline goes ahead then our people are not only going to suffer from not being able to hunt, fish and trap on our land; we will eventually lose control of our land. It will be destroyed by oil and mining companies.

“Just think of how it is when you take a drive down south to the cities. Everywhere you look it’s fenced off and some white farmer owns the land. If that’s what you want, then go for it. […]

“I can’t believe this is happening. Where are our supposed native leaders in all of this? They must be far too close to the owners of the oil and gas companies to realize what their own people want.”

The cost of tar sands extraction is usually only measured in the massive destruction of ecosystems in northern Alberta. Yet there is no way this project can move forward without devastating land from the Arctic Ocean south to the Alberta border, further impoverishing the northern indigenous nations of Denendeh/the Northwest Territories, and taking the resources of Dene and Inuvialuit along with the land and resources of the various indigenous nations of northern Alberta.

Macdonald Stainsby is a student, social justice activist and professional hitchhiker looking for a ride to the better world. He is currently based in Vancouver.

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