‘This is the Will of the Yukon— Lo, how she makes it plain!’
‘This is the Will of the Yukon— Lo, how she makes it plain!’
The sleek little turboprop lazily circled the dusty airfield at Old Crow, before dropping and bouncing to a halt in front of the waiting villagers. The Lysyk inquiry had come to town. Chairman Ken Lysyk was happily settled into the copilot’s seat but not-so-comfortably dressed for summer
80 miles above the Arctic Circle, where the weather was as frosty as the greetings were warm. The tiny Indian village was dotted with signs, the paint barely dry, but the intent clear: “Welcome to Old Crow Mr. Lysyk, Mrs. Bohmer, Mr. Phelps. Please hear us speak. Much is to be said and a lot to be heard. Please take our messages with you when you leave.” Old Crow was ready to tell yet another pipeline inquiry that a pipeline wasn’t wanted.
Lysyk, with the urbane good looks of a man in an expensive whiskey ad, managed not to shiver, although the winds winding up over the ice pans in the Beaufort Sea early this month warmed not a whit on their way south. His fellow board member, Edith Bohmer, wasn’t as imperturbable: her chattering teeth set her Yukon gold nugget earrings jangling. The inquiry’s third member took prompt action. Willard Phelps donned a Dayglo yellow Trans North Turbo Air cap, lit a fat cigar and trotted briskly down the rutted road to the warmth of Old Crow’s only restaurant.
Over sandwiches, made in a kitchen that lacked running water but boasted a microwave oven, the Lysyk inquiry worked out its schedule. Old Crow, where
81 people told the recent Berger inquiry that a pipeline would destroy them, would be given the chance to repeat the message at three sets of meetings over the next 28 hours.
Mackenzie Valley pipeline commissioner Thomas Berger was seen as a tundra-striding Solomon, adjudicating between cruel technological forces and harassed native people on Canada’s last frontier. And, in Old Crow, the Lysyk in-
quiry took on the same image. In fact though, the Lysyk trio are more like pilots of a trial balloon. They’re simply testing the tide of opinion in the Yukon, counting up the problems to be faced if a natural gas pipeline is built there. It’s a preliminary lick and a promise, a backgrounder for the Canadian government which has promised to announce which pipeline route it prefers before the U.S. government makes known its choice this fall. On the surface, the Alaska Highway or Alcan pipeline proposed by Foothills (Yukon) Ltd. seems a neat compromise. It would bring Prudhoe Bay gas south along a route that roughly follows the 35-year-old Alaska Highway through the Yukon and northern BC and would thus give Canada the benefits of a pipeline construction project without endangering the ecologically fragile Mackenzie Delta.
As many Yukoners see it, Lysyk has been given less than three months to do a job that took Berger more than three years, and he finds it frustrating to keep explaining he wasn’t asked to do what Berger had done. Says Lysyk: “The inquiries differ in important ways. Berger was asked to recommend the terms and
conditions under which a pipeline could be built down the Mackenzie Valley. That’s not our job at all. Our terms of reference ask only for a preliminary report.” After his appointment by the federal government in mid-April, Lysyk quickly wound up his academic affairs as Dean of Law at the University of British Columbia and opened hearings in Whitehorse on May 11, preparing a brief which the government wants by August 1.
Like Berger, Lysyk is impressed by the North and its people. Two years younger than Berger, Lysyk, at 42, has a more academic, less political background. Approachable but not the same media sensation, he was close to Berger in the 1960s when Lysyk was a UBC law professor and Berger a battling native litigation lawyer. Their first contact came when Lysyk was approached for advice by Berger. A constitutional expert, Lysyk found himself immediately fascinated “by the whole mix of history and policy” involving native litigation; he has been studying and
writing on the subject ever since. Until the inquiry, Lysyk had never been to the Yukon. In contrast, his fellow board members are third-generation Yukoners. Phelps, 35, was nominated to the inquiry by the Yukon Territorial Government. He’s a Whitehorse lawyer, grandson of Dawson City’s first lawyer, who represented the legendary Skookum Jim. Bohmer,40-ish, is the nominee of the Council for Yukon Indians (CYI) which is participating in the inquiry reluctantly, convinced the hearing is “straightjacketed” by the “indecently short time” it has to ponder the pipeline.
Heading for Old Crow, the three detoured farther north to see the land affected if the Alaska Highway Pipeline acquired, as the National Energy Board recommends, a lateral line to feed Mackenzie Delta gas south from the western Arctic along the Dempster Highway to the main pipeline. Touching down at a DEWLine station, they stood, for the first time, on the Arctic Ocean ice. Even third generation Yukoners don’t normally get that far.
“Our job is to say something to the government of Canada about the pipeline,” has been Lysyk’s folksy, reassuring opening line in communities from Beaver Creek, 600 miles north-west of Vancouver and Canada’s most westerly settlement, to Upper Liard on the BC border. From the beginning, three distinct points of view emerged. There’s a white, business-oriented, pro-pipeline stance, a native anti-pipeline position and a white rearguard action, spearheaded by people who don’t want the last frontier curdled by progress. “I’d like to see a pipeline down the main street of Mayo,” is the succinct statement from Mayo MLA Gordon McIntyre. “Christ, we need the jobs.”
Opposite that is the moving plea of Joe Paul Jack, a 26-year-old descendant of generations of chiefs, hired by the CYI to travel ahead of the hearings alerting natives. ‘ ' I have seen the great coastal plains of the northern Yukon. I have watched black guillemots in the roof of the old abandoned church on Herschel Island; walked on ice floes as ring seals bobbed in the cold, salt water.” Don’t let development destroy that, he told the Lysyk inquiry, because if the land goes, the people die.
The split is threatening to wrench apart the Yukon. Yukon commissioner Art Pearson, for one, is frightened by the trend. A lot of people are being forced to say they’re unequivocally in favor of a pipeline because the Indians are saying they're unequivocally against one.”
If people can’t agree whether the pipeline is the best or worst thing to happen to the Yukon since the gold rush, they agree it’s the biggest thing since ’98. The Yukon is recovering from a year of labor strife that had most of the mines strikebound, and tourist revenues, down last year for the first time in a decade, may not recover this year, even though the midnight sun isn’t battling the Olympics and the American Bicentennial. With the Alaskan oil pipeline completed, truck traffic through the Yukon is down too, with a resulting decrease in sales of everything from gas to coffee. Unemployment is high and rising.
In Upper Liard, John Dixon told the inquiry: “White people is no good for Indians. That’s all, sonny. That’s just what I want to tell you.” If the natives recognize that a pipeline could be the death warrant for their way of life, many white Yukoners also see that it would end their way of life, taming the last frontier open to people fleeing urbanization. In the long run, that might be good or bad. And that, really, is what the Yukon wants to tell the Lysyk inquiry.
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