Contrary to recent messaging from the department of Education that students in the Sahtu are not being exposed to outside presentations on hydraulic fracturing during school hours, reports emerged last week that the entire high school of Tulita left class to attend an industry-sponsored meeting last fall.
The topic of what kind of information on fracking is being shared in Sahtu schools recently became an issue when First Nation leaders from Fort Nelson were denied the ability to give presentations on their experiences with fracking during school hours.
According to employees with the local resource council, high school students in Tulita took the entire afternoon off of class in November to attend presentations in the community put on by oil and gas company ConocoPhillips and the department of Industry, Tourism and Investment.
The speaking tour, which visited four of five Sahtu communities, was sponsored by the oil and gas company, currently behind the NWT’s first and only fracking operation, in response to community requests for more information on fracking from independent, third-party sources.
The Indian Resources Council, a network of southern First Nations economically engaged in the oil and gas industry, was hired to do the speaking. The National Energy Board, Sahtu Land and Water Board and Husky Energy were also present for the meetings.
At the time, the presentations were criticized by Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley, who questioned what he saw as one-sided information being presented in the communities, following what he said was a “biased” tour of the Bakken shale play in North Dakota earlier that fall.
“The Indian Resource Council is a group that represents oil-producing First Nations. It is not likely that we will get a balanced view from them,” Bromley said at the time.
Norman Wells resident and contractor Rick Muyres, a participant in the sessions, told The Journal at the time that, while informative, the presentations were an obvious “infomercial” for the oil and gas industry.
Muyres said he would rather have received information from people in the Fort Nelson area of BC, the site of an ongoing shale gas boom and much more similar in terms of landscape and First Nation politics.
Last month, leaders from the Fort Nelson First Nation were brought to the Sahtu by the local Renewable Resources Board to do a speaking tour of the region, where they held presentations in Norman Wells, Tulita and Fort Good Hope to share their experiences – both positive and negative – of dealing with fracking on their territory.
Though organizers attempted to engage the schools, they were told the Fort Nelson speakers would not be allowed in during instructional hours.
In response to queries by The Journal, assistant deputy minister of Education Rita Mueller said the school division decided to keep the presentations outside of school hours in favour of regular curriculum and in order to ensure a “balanced perspective” was taken on the issue.
She said no presentations on fracking, either for or against, had taken place in Sahtu schools during instructional hours to date.
While Mueller said no date or time had been scheduled for a presentation at Norman Wells, sources told The Journal that a presentation had been set but then cancelled based on an order from above.
The department declined further comment last week.
Bromley told The Journal last week that it was unfortunate, but not surprising, that students in the Sahtu were not given equal opportunity to hear from First Nations directly experiencing the impacts of fracking.
“It’s certainly upsetting, particularly given the precedence of the minister having the schools adjourned so that they could attend their dog and pony show,” he said. “Here was an opportunity to speak to someone in a neighbouring jurisdiction – really their peers – that have extensive experience with this, so it’s very disappointing. The schools and teachers and the part of the public that they represent should be involved in those regional discussions, obviously.”