The industrialization of Canada’s Northern wilderness – the right way

The industrialization of Canada’s Northern wilderness – the right way

The recent agreement between Akaitcho Chiefs and the Chamber of Mines holds great promise for improving economies in the NWT’s South Slave Region on the long term.

The vast undeveloped expanse of land east of Fort Resolution, Fort Smith and Lutsel K’e, all the way to the Nunavut boundary is rich with minerals. Even one mine there would immensely help all the economies of those communities, and the material well-being of the people in them.

Kudos to the Chamber of Mines for taking the initiative. We have to wonder, where were the NWT and federal governments in this and why did they not play a lead role in such an undertaking?

Why do we pay all those big government salaries, anyway?

Before getting carried away with optimism that mining in the vast region between the Slave River and the Thelon Game Sanctuary will proceed and be carried out intelligently, it is good to remember that what is in place so far is simply a memorandum of understanding – basically an agreement to get along. There is a long way to go before an agreement is solidified.

It is also good to note that this area is a pristine wilderness. It abounds with features of incredible natural beauty that many people in the world would take pleasure in seeing – and would pay significant money for the experience. That in itself has incredible value – another untapped source of wealth. The two are in direct conflict.  A mine in the middle of that unspoiled natural preserve, particularly one that was poorly implemented, would mar it and significantly downgrade it. That cannot be allowed.

The area is also traditional land, used by indigenous people for thousands of years. As such it can never be regarded as some expendable wilderness that nobody uses nor cares about as is the approach of Alberta to oilsands exploitation not far to the south.

The next step this process in the Akaitcho territory needs now  is a terms of reference. Perhaps it is time for governments to step up, play a role and ascertain that.

It should not be difficult to do. The way the diamond mines were orchestrated and managed in the NWT was masterful. They are templates for the right way industry should carry out development. While the oilsands industry in Alberta is an example of how things should not be done, each one of the NWT diamond mines is exemplary. All three giant international companies, BHP Billiton, Debeers and Rio Tinto are good corporate Northern citizens. The twin hockey arena complex in Yellowknife and investments in other NWT communities is testimony to how they have given back.

Oilsands industry giants like Suncor and Syncrude do that too. The corporations involved there step up and provide a legacy of good in their wake. The difference is in with the way the NWT government required the diamond mines to live up to stringent standards to assure environmental impacts are minimized and employment and training of local people maximized. Each diamond mine has to answer to a body empowered with holding them accountable. The Alberta government did nothing like that. The oilsands industry was left to monitor and police itself.

Another good example of how not to do things can be found in Alaska. the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was enacted in 1971 because there was fear Aboriginal claims might prohibit the granting of right of a way for development of the newly discovered oil and gas reserves. ANCSA  gave Alaskan Aboriginal groups title to 44 million acres and $962 million to settle land claims,  the largest land claim settlement in U.S. history. Each Alaska first nation resident became a stockholder and received 100 shares in one of twelve regional corporations. But ANCSA was set up for failure. It was negotiated by a few who did not represent most Alaskan Aboriginal people and did not understand their needs or ways. Most of the money ended up in the hands of consultants and lawyers and mismanagement was rife. One by one the corporations went broke. The different first nations then commenced legal challenges and the whole land claims negotiations process eventually began over again. IOt was a terrible mess and waste. Obviously, it is so much better to do things right in the first place.

There is a call for the development of Canada’s North to be stream-lined, for the elimination of red tape so industry can be free to access the riches underground and so NWT residents and southern taxpayers can reap the material rewards. That movement has gained momentum and the federal government is strongly behind it. Efficiency is necessary and some of the current NWT regulatory systems are antiquated and far too complex. They need to be fixed and improved on – in such a way that all development is carried out according to sound reason – in an intelligent, responsible way.

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