Northern wealth, southern prosperity

Northern wealth, southern prosperity

Wealth is the main indicator of prestige and social standing. Only rich people can afford property with an ocean view or have lovely homes overlooking a river or lake.

Eceryone else travels to see waterfalls and beautiful rapids. The thought of untamed wild rivers resonates in our souls. Wilderness “unspoiled” by development and industry is held in the highest regard, and even defines us as a nation, “the true North strong and free.”

Development and the advancement of industry strive to take all that away, and we support it – “progress.” We want “the good life” with all the conveniences. Our modern world is material and we like that.

The two are in conflict. We love material well-being, but hate losing the natural beauty of our world. Convenience trumps when it comes to damming rivers and replacing wonders of nature with industrial sites. We ignore the list of negatives, impacts to fish and wildlife and permanent changes to the land. That something special is being lost is just accepted.

The government of the NWT has a “Hydro Strategy,” a cornerstone of its economic planning. It intends to harness the considerable hydroelectric potential of NWT rivers and sell it to the south. Several sites on the Mackenzie River have been selected for development. Any other rivers with a waterfall or drop in elevation that offer the opportunity for power generation will also be dammed.

The market for the power is the United States – west coast cities as far south as California – and getting it there will require major transmission lines. TransCanada, one of Alberta’s foremost corporations currently in the news for its pipeline plans, is also heavily invested in power generation. Its proposed “Northern Lights Transmission Line,” posted online for a decade, would run the length of Alberta, from Fort McMurray across several American states and terminate in Portland, Oregon with future expansion into California. TransCanada partners with ATCO, another multinational Alberta corporation based in Calgary, with a plan currently underway to dam the Slave River rapids. This transmission line would gather power from the region, including the Slave River dam as a key component, plus multiple sites on the Taltson River, any dams further north the NWT government can muster over time, and unused power the oilsands plants generate from oil during operations.

Successive Conservative governments in Alberta have altered legislation requiring consultation and impact analysis of power lines over the last decade so that little consultation with landowners is allowed. It has also been established through Alberta courts that simply posting information on the internet satisfies the constitutional “duty to consult” with First Nations. The Alberta Energy Regulator, which oversees the oilsands as well, has been reconfigured several times and now, by design, strives to optimize corporate initiatives that provide industrial growth. It regards corporations as responsible in managing their undertakings, including caring for the environment, wildlife and affected people, and when a project is over, returning the land to “its original state.”

Alberta has long recognized the rich northeastern corner of the province as key to its economic future. A liberal interpretation of environmental protection during development is in play there. Put another way, the region is considered expendable – “after all, it is only scrub bush that is largely uninhabited” – a sacrifice for the greater good and Alberta’s future prosperity.

The federal government has been an eager helper to round this out, gutting the Fisheries department, minimizing environmental protection, shutting off its civil service to any contact with the public or press and using budget bills that are not scrutinized and debated – the “omnibus bill” format – to implement dramatic changes that pave the way for rapid development. (See “Canada’s Economic Action Plan,” www.actionplan.gc.ca). One of those changes was to remove the Slave River from the Navigable Waters Protection Act.

That act requires consultation with affected communities if there is any proposed barrier to navigation – like a dam. For hundreds of years, the Slave River has been part of the river-based transportation system that accessed Canada’s North. The Peace, Athabasca and Mackenzie Rivers that it connects, oddly, remain protected by that act – so far.

The federal, Alberta and NWT governments are all working together on this with a long term plan. Damming the Slave River is a key part of it.

Many people will become rich from all this development in the coming decades – certainly in Calgary, the rest of Alberta, and from spin-off industries in Ontario and Quebec. Little wealth and few jobs will remain in the North, however.

Not many Northerners will ever be able to afford a beautiful home on a view lot overlooking a river or lake. The considerable wealth generated by all this will allow others, somewhere, to have that though. It is argued Northerners will have benefits too – reservoirs behind the dams for “recreation” – and there may be roads across the dams for us to access the country on the other side, for future development. We will be giving up a lot to get that.

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