The fine lines in a far-flung land

Gordon Legge May 3 1982

The fine lines in a far-flung land

Gordon Legge May 3 1982

The fine lines in a far-flung land

Gordon Legge

As unrelenting as the winds that blast across the barren, snowswept arctic tundra, change is rapidly advancing on northern Canada, dramatically altering its face and its future. In Pangnirtung, an Inuit community of 900 nestled at the base of the majestic glaciated mountains on the eastern shores of Baffin Island, a young Inuit girl dressed in designer jeans and traditional beaver-tail shaped amautik, strolled hand-in-hand with her husband last week, while hot-rodding snowmobilers roared past. Stretched sealskins hung outside most homes, ready for preparation, while, inside, householders watched the Stanley Cup playoffs on color TV.

Hundreds of kilometres to the west, on Little Cornwallis Island in the central Arctic, young Inuit men spend their off-hours learning how to swim at the pool in the housing area at the new $160-million Polaris lead-zinc mine, the world’s most northerly mining project. Meanwhile, in their home communities, some of their friends languish, spending much of their time sleeping, drinking or taking drugs. They are trapped in a web spun out between the old ways and the new—too educated to return to the land permanently, too traditional to survive in a time-clock, wage-oriented economy.

In the west, halfway down the Mackenzie River at Norman Wells, Esso Resources Canada and Interprovincial PipeLine prepare to build a $1.3-billion oil recovery-pipeline project to feed southern markets. With a two-year moratorium on construction start-up, Esso officials are busy negotiating with the Déné Nation, representing northern In-

dians, to create a joint venture that will give the northern natives valuable oilfield job training—and possibly a piece of the action.

Such contrasts abound across the 1.3 million square miles that is the Northwest Territories. With 45,000 people, it is a society in transition, Canada’s own Third World, striving to achieve political and economic maturity by snapping forever the colonial chains that bind it to Ottawa. But while its abundant resources attract the attention of a largely indifferent southern Canada, for northerners the most precious resource is neither oil nor natural gas, but

time. And the momentum of northern resource development is gaining speed.

A society in transition is striving to achieve maturity by snapping forever the colonial chains that bind

It is estimated that more than $50 billion will be spent on massive northern resource projects between now and the end of the century. The complex considerations involved are almost overwhelming. While Ottawa loosens its grip and at the same time permits development that will serve the diverse and sometimes competing interests of both the North and South, northerners are scrambling to keep abreast, ensuring that they not only participate and benefit but that their fragile environment is protected and their cultures are secured against the onslaught.

In mid-April, N.W.T. residents took

one unsteady step forward. Promoted by the predominantly Inuit eastern Arctic, a plebiscite was held asking northerners if they wanted to see the vast territory divided in half between the east and west. On voting day, the east, physically and ethnically isolated from the territorial capital in Yellowknife, voted overwhelmingly in favor of division, but the west—comprising a mixture of native and nonnative peoples— rejected the proposal by a slim margin. This week, Indian Affairs and Northern Development Minister John Munro visits Yellowknife to discuss the results with the elected territorial executive. Cautious not to raise unrealistic expectations, Munro has promised to make a recommendation to cabinet related to the nonbinding plebiscite’s outcome. Although he can choose in his own words “to spin wheels” and do nothing, the backlash could be substantial.

However the federal government chooses to handle the dilemma, there are other pressing matters on its northern agenda. Paramount is settlement of native land claims. In that, officials see the resolution of many problems facing northern natives, as well as supplying additional certainty for mega-project investors, and the keystone to real political and economic independence for northerners. However, for a variety of reasons, the pace of talks with each of the three claims groups—Indians, Inuit and Métis—is either painstakingly slow or stalled.

This week, the National Energy Board visits Frobisher Bay as part of its hearings into the Arctic Pilot Project, a plan by Petro-Canada, Nova, Melville Shipping and Dome Petroleum to ship liquefied natural gas from Melville Island in the Arctic down the east coast to

a terminal in the Maritimes. The Inuit, as well as Greenlanders, are strongly opposed, concerned that it will drastically affect the northern marine environment on which the natives depend for food and income. “The Inuit have to be the soldiers and police of the Arctic,” says Inuit Tapirisat President John Amagoalik. “If the Arctic environment is screwed up, there will be no more Inuit.”

Despite the best efforts of industry and government there is still much to learn about northern ecosystems. According to an internal Environment Canada report, trace elements dumped into the tailings pond behind the Nanisivak lead-zinc mine on the northern tip of Baffin Island have been found in unusually high concentrations in the fish and wildlife nearby. The occurrence defies expert predictions and has shaken officials. A study is planned this summer to determine the cause. “Everybody’s doing his job,” says Indian and Northern Affairs official Yvon Dubé, director for northern environment. “It’s just a lot more complicated than we think.”

But many wonder whether the government’s expressed good intentions can be imposed on the mass of bureaucracy being put into place. A Dome chart, often cited by northern officials, shows 70 or more steps required for project approval. Déné President Georges Erasmus complains that it took eight months for the government to provide crucial funding after it affixed a twoyear moratorium on the construction start-up for the Norman Wells Dome Petroleum project in the Beaufort Sea—a moratorium provided to help satisfy northern native concerns. “We’re only now beginning to do some of the things we should have started on last summer,” says Erasmus.

Meanwhile, others worry that Northern Affairs’ pre-eminent role in the North is being usurped by the federal energy, mines and resources department as it supervises (or dictates) the agenda for frontier oil and gas development. While Northern Affairs has traditionally been viewed as a “middling” department for ministers on their way up or down, no one questions EMR’s role in fostering Canada’s economic recovery.

At the same time, some predict that events will overtake good will. For instance, another Middle East crisis could easily imperil world oil supplies, thereby accelerating the need for northern energy and, subsequently, jeopardizing plans for the orderly and sensitive development of Canada’s final frontier. Whatever happens, no longer can it be said, as Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent once did, that Canada governs the North “in fits of absentmindedness.”