Northern Journal’s story of the year

Northern Journal’s  story of the year
NWT Premier Bob McLeod (right) seals the deal with federal Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister Bernard Valcourt in Ottawa in December during the introduction of the NWT devolution bill in the House of Commons.Photo: CNW Group Government of Canada.

“We’ve got to get our resources to market.” Any market, any resource. It’s the motto of today’s Northwest Territories, which as the bright rays of devolution peek over the horizon, eagerly beckons any and all investors from around the globe to bring economic prosperity to the North.

At the essence of the mantra is the promising golden egg of resource revenues the NWT will finally get to keep for itself after the transfer of authorities for lands, water and resources takes place on Apr. 1 of this year.

As of right now, that egg is small – around $42 million when all is said and done. Not nearly enough to feed the seemingly insatiable infrastructure appetite of the NWT or the many social ills faced by poverty-stricken communities across the territory.

With little in the way of plans to develop sustainable local economies – requiring a much longer timeline than provided by the next three months – the objective is to increase the size of that egg through any possible resource development.

Diamonds, gold, metals, oil, gas, hydro – if you want it, says Premier Bob McLeod, the NWT has it.

With the devolution deal, as resource revenues grow so can capital expenditure, and vice versa. Infrastructure will be built, debts repaid, and even a smidgen saved for future generations unable to benefit from the one-time resource boom.

But at what cost?

It’s a question of time. Land-loving residents don’t want to rush the process. They want proper protocols developed for new industrial technologies like fracking and offshore oil drilling to ensure the land and water is not irremediably damaged by coming development.

Yet as the territory’s $3-billion infrastructure debt only continues to mount, the pressures of addressing some of those needs have become more desperate, the tension palpable behind cabinet’s every handshake, smile, keynote address and half-million-dollar NWT Days celebration in Ottawa.

It may be true that there is no time like the present. Political and economic interest in the North is at an all-time high, making marketing now an imperative, lest the fickle gaze of southern corporations turn elsewhere.

Industry lobbyists are at the same time hammering the government for faster assessments, pulling out their harsh criticism of the NWT’s cumbersome regulatory system whenever convenient, no matter how damaging the self-fulfilling prophecy may be on the NWT’s reputation and investment climate.

The Canadian government meanwhile is setting its sights on the North as the country’s new treasure trove for foreign investment, promising economic development for NWT communities – as long as they go along with the gutting of regulations.

The GNWT has silently followed along, happy to be considered for the award of their small golden egg. The devolution deal isn’t perfect, but it’s something, say politicians, and it’s too late to hope for more.

Even further now, the NWT’s politicians are vocally endorsing their assimilation as Canada’s next resource colony, buying into the industry-biased wave of regulatory reform sweeping the nation and emulating their desire to model the territory’s new public review bodies after Alberta’s – arguably the most controversial in the country, the focus of First Nations-led legal strife.

All the while, rhetoric from the territorial government never fails to include the conviction that natural resources can be developed in balance with protection of the environment, an optimism overlooking how the slippery scale continues to slide as the definition of environmental protection is pared down, refined.

The wary hope such a belief is sincere. The more cynical resign themselves to the likelihood that there is probably no choice between developing resources or leaving them in the ground; they were sold a long time ago.

The time has come when Northerners are now trapped between the rock and the hard place foreshadowed by centuries-old prophecies from across the land. That those resources will be exploited is obvious. The only question that remains to be answered is, at what pace? That question will only be decided by the winner of the advancing tug-o’-war between industry and the grassroots.

With news of bitter – sometimes violent – battles emerging from across the country as private and public interests collide on the frontlines, it remains to be seen if such resistance is a far cry – or an image from – the NWT’s future.

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