August 10: Zhati Kóé (Fort Providence), Pehdzéh Ki (Wrigley) & Liidlii Kué (Fort Simpson) of the Deh Cho Region, Denendeh
Every community in Denendeh faces similar possible impacts of a proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, but some regions have specific concerns; Zhati Kóé (Fort Providence) is not on the actual route of the proposed Mackenzie Gas Project pipeline. What could happen to the community is not mitigated or lessened by the geography of the situation, however.
Zhati Kóé (Fort Providence), Pehdzéh Ki (Wrigley) & Liidlii Kué (Fort Simpson)
of the Deh Cho Region, Denendeh
Every community in Denendeh faces similar possible impacts of a proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, but some regions have specific concerns; Zhati Kóé (Fort Providence) is not on the actual route of the proposed Mackenzie Gas Project pipeline. What could happen to the community is not mitigated or lessened by the geography of the situation, however. Upon my recent arrival in Providence, the MGP group had their consultants attending and hosting a “TK study” . Another similar study has been or will be held in every community effected by the proposal. “TK” stands for traditional knowledge, the wisdom of learning through experience, passed on from generation to generation. After their first public accounting of impacts and research did not contain any such TK information, the pMGP group announced they would carry out several of these “TK studies”.
At the furthest north of the Deh Cho Region in the smaller community of Pehdzéh Ki (Wrigley), the pMGP held a similar “TK Study”. In my time in Pehdzéh Ki, I was taken by an elder out on the land to learn (from both words and action) about his traditional picking of sage, the medicinal uses for Dené and the plants role in his nations history and culture. He spoke of how others had done so before him, had taught him what it meant, and how to respect the plant and the plants power. Though he was very happy to share what he knew, it was also apparent that it would be impossible for traditional knowledge to be learned through anything other than experience, and that this experience is cumulative over generations. In other words, it didn’t apply to me. Perhaps this is close to the actual meaning of TK, but the pre-packaged “TK study” of the MGP feels like a branding initiative, with “TK” only slightly removed from “CK”.
The patronising approach of the pMGP in these studies was described by Jonas Antoine:
“You can write about and even document traditional knowledge, but you can never ‘get’ traditional knowledge spiritually. The Mackenzie Gas Project is trying to say they document it, but you can never capture it. That is what white people can never understand about it. Traditional knowledge is a part of our history, passed on from creation through our ancestors to this day. What the MGP calls a TK study is where they pay a few bucks to any old person they see walking down the street to go out on the land, walk around and tell them some things about the land. Then they turn around and call that TK involvement.”
The same kind of criticism was levelled to the TK study itself in Providence . An elder in the audience told the pMGP’s hired consultants:
“Listen, you just can’t walk in here and say ‘Okay now, please share your traditional knowledge with us,’ and expect that to mean anything. It doesn’t work like that. Traditional knowledge is learned through generations, passed on from time immemorial, through spending deep time with the land.”
Perhaps only coincidentally, but perhaps not, at this point the man who was attending and recording the “study” with myself was approached and told to stop his mini-disc recorder. At the same time as the first opposition to the study itself appeared, he was ordered to cease making a record.
What he was recording had been, up until that point, not even about TK at all-- it was a 2.5 hour presentation in the most glowing terms with pictures and charts and figures, all without social context or any mentioned environmental downside, that was flowing in one direction from hired consultants who do not live in the north working for Imperial Oil and the pMGP to the people whose lives may hang in the balance. Several criticisms and concerns from people were interjected into the presentations. Many of these were around barge traffic; Fort Providence happens to be a the place where the Deh Cho leaves Great Slave Lake and would see nearly all of the barges go down the river north. River traffic would increase, barges may see a six-fold increase on the Deh Cho. Many discussed pollution, remembering the damage caused when the army went through the area after the Second World War. People worry about bank erosion as a result of the wave increase from more river traffic, so many different ways that the project can effect the natural balance. The assessment put out by the pMGP neglected noise pollution. It was instead brought up by an audience member.
“I notice that one form of pollution is missing from your discussion, and that’s noise. I remember a few years ago, I was riding with the barges up river from Jean Marie when we came around this corner and there was this black bear madly trying to run away up this cliff bank. Every time he tried to go up, he fell backwards and over himself rolling down the banks. At the time we were watching this we all thought that it was hilarious, but now that I think about it, maybe it’s not so funny. By the time we get anywhere on the river, the animals have all heard us and are long gone. They know when we are coming and if they get frightened away because of all the noise of the barges, it will have a tremendous effect on this community. Many of the people of our community depend on these animals being here to provide for our livelihood throughout the winter…”
In Liidlii Kué (Fort Simpson), environmental impacts would creep right up to the very doorstep of this community, the un-official capital of the Deh Cho Region. The “Right of Way” (ROW) corridor-- an area of one mile wide that would be cut through the entire pipeline route from the Beaufort Delta all the way down south to exactly 15 meters past the border into the province of Alberta-- is only 3km’s away from Liidlii Kué; in the smaller community of Pehdzéh Ki the pipeline wants to come in even closer.
“Even the impact where we are [Liidlii Kué] will be devastating. Because, no matter what the argument is, the footprint will be 1000’s of km’s long. On the ROW, the vegetation and trees will be removed, animal behaviours will change, bird and animal behaviour will be altered. Since the Norman Wells pipeline[AA], more moose appear [on the ROW] which increases predation, reducing the number of animals for us to hunt. Also, the re-seeding of the ROW would also alter the environment because there is no guarantee the new vegetation will be indigenous plants…”
However, with nearly all of the communities the main fear is what is going to happen to communities already struggling to deal with a colonial process that, unlike most everywhere else in Canada, is relatively young. The only recent forced re-locations of the Dené of the north onto permanent settlements (along with residential schools) has greatly exacerbated drug and alcohol dependency, used often as a coping mechanism to deal with the aftermath of a genocidally-intended residential school system. Communities that are hurting but slowly healing are now looking at the prospect of the single greatest change in the north’s history.
Among all of the impacts predicted to occur as a result of the pMGP, the greatest changes may come from the 2-year process of building this pipeline. In order to get up enough labour power for putting together the infrastructure of the largest industrial project in the history of Turtle Island, an estimated 13 000 workers will be required for simply the initial phases of the project. The MGP was recently ordered to decipher how many additional workers would be needed for further exploration. The impact of workers from the south, living in camps that are really towns right beside hurting communities cannot be over-estimated. Up and down the thousands of kilometres that make up the “Mackenzie Valley” , these camps will dwarf many of the communities that have lived here for millenniums, and do so practically overnight. Antoine explains:
“The camps will naturally be attracted by communities. People often don’t foresee or understand the impact of 1000 people [on a community of equal or lesser size].” When asked what kind of preparations a community like Liidlii Kué should undertake, he replied “It’s really hard to prepare. How do you prepare for a Tsunami? Put up great walls? In the end, all you can do when it is about to hit is learn how to swim. It’s the same thing for social impacts: learn how to cope, how to manage, have the community learn how to ‘police’ itself.”
Citing a serious blindspot on the part of the MGP, the Northwest Territories Council on the Status of Women predicts that such a large transient influx will create a large number of unwanted children, children of single parents, increased sex traffic and gender based violence-- most notably in communities overrun by transient “temporary” workers with little to no long-term attachment to the north. While the project “promises” 13 000 jobs, there are only 3 000 people officially unemployed in all of the NWT. Petr Cizek tries to explain this:
“This is beyond a boom and bust scenario because you can’t possibly cope with infrastructure demands. Take Fort MacMurray [the town ‘booming’ from tar sands extraction in northern Alberta, and the place where most of the gas from a pMGP would be destined for-- MS]. They have doubled the population in the last decade and still constantly need more people to work. It’s impossible to live there; it’s so bad that companies are commuting people from Edmonton to MacMurray once a week by plane.”
What does this mean to people living in these communities today? The Deh Gah Alliance Society will attempt to mitigate possibly the worst effects-- DGAS has been formed to provide impact assessments and responses “from the grassroots”, according to Wesley Hardisty, who also works with the Arctic Indigenous Youth Alliance. Maybe this is an example of the community ‘policing itself’. Unfortunately, some things can’t be prepared for. Antoine replied, when asked about specific steps that Liidlii Kué can take to guard itself,
“This is where you start thinking about something so enormous-- and you just wish everything would go away. But there is going to come a time when leadership will have to make bold decisions, like bridging gaps-- there will be a merger between old and new. When you do something with the land or with the water, you are messing around with mother nature. Mother nature is very touchy. Unless you approach her spiritually and have everyone believe in this approach, and come together by consensus with the land, only then can it be okay.”
Leaving Pehdzéh Ki via thumb, I was given a ride with a man who was quite generous with me and took me nearly 300 kms to Liidlii Kué. He gave me snacks and was friendly in conversation. He told me right after he picked me up that he was doing “some TK work with the Mackenzie Gas Project”. In this sort of situation, as long as you do not ask any questions in a decipherable sequence, you can get very interesting information. Everyone trusts the hitchhiker.
An “Interview” with a Consultant of the pMGP
“I’m working as a consultant for the Mackenzie Gas Project, we’re doing a traditional knowledge study.”
Although my questions were not asked in this sequence then, some of them were:
What kind of concerns are you hearing from people?
Consultant: “You know, people are concerned about the environment in general, they want to know that there is going to be no or very little bad effects.”
Where did you grow up?
C: “Calgary and Ontario, I got a masters degree in public relations while I went to school in London England.”
How many of the communities have you been into up here with the MGP?
C: “Doing this TK study work, nearly all of them, Tuk[toyuktuk], Aklavik, Wrigley, Simpson, Providence, Trout [Lake], Jean Marie [River], Inuvik, Tulita, Norman Wells, [Fort] Good Hope, just about all of them.”
What are you holding the study for?
C: “Some people were upset that we didn’t incorporate enough TK into our first study, so we are doing this to help smooth things over with some communities, you know, so people believe we are listening to their concerns.”
What have you learned so far doing these meetings?
C: “Well, something we already figured, that the Elders really have this incredible knowledge of the land, and want certain areas protected, and for the pipeline to go around these areas… this sort of stuff.”
How long have you been coming up here?
C: “A few years now.”
How many times have you been able to get out on the land, or has it been nothing but hotel rooms and meetings?
C: “No, I’d like to get out to some areas… but I’ve been too busy flying from here to there and holding these meetings.”
So you’ve never been out on the land?
Where in the places you’ve been up here do you like the best?
C: “Aklavik is probably my favourite place, places like Wrigley here are really messed up. There’s a lot of drugs and alcohol and you can’t get away from it. I also really like Inuvik.”
I thought Inuvik seemed every bit as messed up, with a lot of social problems as well…
C: “Yes, but there you can hide from it better. There are restaurants, gardens, movies-- places to go where you don’t have to see the problems, you can get away from it. In places like Wrigley, it‘s always there, in your face.”
Those public hearings are starting soon. Do you think the whole process is a rubber stamp?
C: “No, there are still things to deal with, resource negotiations with communities and so on, plus there might be regulations that are very stringent or too stringent on how it can proceed.”
Since I’ve been here, people have seemed worried about the impact of all these workers from the south with no attachment to the communities being here, and I gotta say that sounds a little freaky, like the communities could get overwhelmed. Are you hearing people talk about this?
C: “Yes, that seems to be the main concern for a lot of people around here, particularly in the isolated communities where people are afraid of having a lot of drugs, alcohol and other problems come in.”
What are your bosses saying about this?
C: “Well, the thing that the communities want is to stop these people from coming in. So we are going to hire security guards to watch the camps,”
And they will block people from going to the communities?
C: “Well, some people will be allowed to go in and out, and of course nothing will be perfect, but the workers will face sanctions if they are caught trying to go to a community.”
Sanctions? Like what?
C: “They haven’t said anything about that yet.”
Are you hearing different things in each community?
C: “Not really. They all just pretty much want to know that the land is going to be okay. For some it‘s moose or caribou, for others it‘s the fish, you know, but it‘s all the same-- about the environment.”
[notes originally taken from memory, after the fact]
As I was getting off to hitchhike south, he kindly gave me all of his crackers and fig newtons, and I was genuinely very grateful for everything. These consultants have been tasked to help with “community relations” between the pMGP and the various Dené people who still live with and control the land. While crossing the Deh Cho on the Ndulee Ferry , the ferry was unusually full (seeing as it was the first run after the thee hour lunch break they get daily). A large number of local Deh Cho peoples from Pehdzéh Ki were heading to Liidlii Kué and about the same number of whites, doing various work. The consultant immediately went and had a conversation with his fellow Caucasians, knowing none of them prior. That’s where he feels most comfortable, in between “forums” and “studies” where he interacts with various indigenous people for a few hours here or there. These studies, even if one thinks they are mainly for public relations on the part of the pMGP, ostensibly are trying to determine whether or not these communities are ‘ready’ for their land to be torn up in order to send their resources south while the process makes them a minority in their own country. Are these communities “ready” for that? Again, Jonas Antoine:
“When Thomas Berger concluded 30 years ago, he said this place ‘wasn’t ready for the pipeline’. It wasn’t just the people he was referring to, but the land and the environment. The people may have changed, and then again they may not, but the land and environment certainly aren’t ready.
It’s a certainty that if I see a tree and don’t cut it down, it will stand there until it reaches its life term. If I cut down that tree, I’m cutting its beauty and purpose. If then cutting it down is also to replace it with some unnatural activity I am also preventing other trees from growing, and I have removed a natural process. That would then be called ‘progress and development’.” 
AA: the Enbridge pipeline, carrying oil from Norman Wells south, was pushed through in a great hurry and with next to no consultation with Dené nations living in Denendeh. Though both much shorter and considerably smaller than the proposed gas pipeline, this pipeline is often a reference point for locals in assessing the plans of the pMGP.
1 Jonas Antoine, personal interviews. (in Fort Simpson) August 8, 2005.
2 anonymous speaker # 1, “Mackenzie Gas Project public TK study” Snowshoe Inn, Fort Providence NT, July 26, 2005.
3 anonymous speaker # 2, “Mackenzie Gas Project public TK study” Snowshoe Inn, Fort Providence NT, July 26, 2005.
4 Jonas Antoine, personal interviews. (in Fort Simpson) August 8, 2005.
5 Jonas Antoine, personal interviews. (in Fort Simpson) August 8, 2005.
6 Jonas Antoine, personal interviews. (in Fort Simpson) August 8, 2005.
7 Petr Cizek, personal interviews. (in Yellowknife) August 2, 2005.
8 Wesley Hardisty, personal interviews. (in Fort Simpson) August 7, 2005
9 Jonas Antoine, personal interviews. (in Fort Simpson) August 8, 2005.
10 Jonas Antoine, personal interviews. (in Fort Simpson) August 8, 2005.