What is Canada Doing
in the Arctic North?
-by Macdonald Stainsby
Well, now it appears to be official. On October Seventh, 2004 Imperial Oil (otherwise known as Esso) has submitted an application to build the single largest mega project of industrialization in the history of the settler state of Canada. Along with several Inuit and many other Dene Nations, the Deh Cho (Dene) Nations of the Mackenzie Valley are among those whose land will be traversed by a 1700 kilometere long natural gas pipeline. It has taken many years for oil and gas giants to breakdown the resistance of local indigenous nations to such a project. In the 1970's, The Canadian Government carried out an inquiry-- the Berger Inquiry-- to examine the benefits and costs of the proposed pipeline. The various Nations and the Metis would be decimated by such a proposal, according to the Mackenzie Valley pipeline review written by Thomas R Berger in 1977 at the behest of then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's government.
The reasons for such a recommendation were in mainly two areas: One, that a pipeline could not be introduced in such a way as not to (further) decimate the traditional lives and practices in the area, associated with land use and hunting in a subsistence economy. The other was ecological: the risks associated with such a pipeline-- over 1700 km in length-- would be so astronomical as to render it beyond the pale in terms of what might happen to "the last frontier" even in the unlikely event that there was never a spill or an accident. And because one cannot predict the unpredictable, the lands that contain among the very last giant migrating herds involving hundreds of thousands of animals-- the porcupine caribou herds-- need to be protected on their own right, never mind that the people who live there depend on the land itself. This is also a major issue in the United States, where traditional protection for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in the northeast of Alaska has come under constant threat; such a refuge in Alaska does not have the kinds of protections afforded by a park in Canada.
For these reasons and many others, the Berger Inquiry ran into near unanimous opposition to the idea of a pipeline, in every community of the North, where even today the overwhelming bulk of the population remains the indigenous peoples themselves (unlike Canada seen as a whole). Justice Thomas R Berger himself, in strong terms for a diplomat of the Canadian state, concluded that the Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline project was not something he could, in good conscience recommend. However, an escape clause was inserted. Berger stated that, with proper environmental assessments and more importantly "finalized land claims" with nations in the area, then the project could go ahead through the Mackenzie Valley. Ironically, though trying to make a separate point, Justice Berger concluded his subsection report "Native claims and the pipeline" with the Orwellian prophecy:
"If we think back to the days when the treaties were signed on the Prairies, we can predict what will happen in the North if a settlement is forced upon the native people. We shall soon see that we cannot keep the promises we have made." 1
Well, thirty years ago, "experts" said we were in no immediate danger of a glut in global energy supplies, and the idea of hitting an energy production peak seemed even further off than it actually was. Today, as we near and surpass a global peak in oil production capability, we are past the peak in terms of low-cost means to refine and transport oil. As energy declines globally and simultaneously Venezuela, Iraq, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia are all "unstable" for differing reasons, Canada needs to "contribute" to the escalation in demand for new energy supplies. Even the recent early stages of global warming-- such as Hurricanes Jeanne and Ivan-- stranded production in the Gulf of Mexico, driving oil prices through the roof, to over $56 a barrel.
In this context, the "untappable" reserves in the "untouchable" sections of the Mackenzie Valley and the Beaufort Sea (in the Arctic Ocean) on the never conquered (but socially decimated) land of Inuit and Dene Nations becomes not only a possibility, but a necessity for the global imperialist system, in particular Canadian imperialism. In this sense, this rush to destroy the land of these nations should be seen as a Canadian front in what Dick Cheney told us is a war that "will last beyond our lifetimes". And while the US Occupation of Iraq tries to set up "elections" and a new government at the point of a gun, most nations of the north have band councils that have acquiesced to the "inevitability" of assimilation and massive settlements after also being forced to adopt the colonizers models.
Speaking of global warming, the Northwest Passage-- sought ever since Europeans realized that there was a continent between East Asia and themselves and that the world was indeed round-- will soon open up with a combination of polar ice melting and advancing technology to allow shipping easy access across the top of the world, dramatically reducing shipping lane distances (by 7000 miles). This incredible traffic will appear at roughly the same time as the pipeline itself is built, and in such a scenario, we are not speaking about a mere chunk of metal that stretches across the land. A pipeline and series of new refineries would need to be accompanied by a series of new settlements and roads, penetrating deep into the delicate balance that is the North, both below and above the treeline.
These new settlers, as always in a settler colonial state, will come in and immediately assume colonial privilege status in a fashion that will continue to further reduce the Dene and Inuit peoples to second class status on their own land. But this is nothing new for Canada-- should we prevent this attack with "facts on the ground", that's what will be a new beginning. John A. Macdonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada, once wrote: "The Indians and Metis of the Northwest will be held down with a firm hand till the West is overrun and controlled by white settlers."2
Today, after years of continued deliberate dependency creation (welfare, snowmobiles, established villages instead of temporary settlements in the bush) the "new" (imposed) governing councils are caught in a vice of history-- with no outside help to construct alternatives, they are often bent towards the greed of Imperial Oil and other would be developers, after huge diamond deposits and 10% of the planets fresh water. The original resistance to the pipeline was convinced that the south of Canada and the world-- who at the time were trying to show solidarity with Vietnam, South Africa and Latin America-- would see the Dene and Inuit cause as one of their own.
Sadly, this has mostly not been the case. Time has been the enemy of these nations. Social groups in the north are alarmed at the social costs inherent in all projects like this: the removal of traditional ties to the land, the irreversible destruction of the land itself, the advent of ever more alcohol and prostitution that always comes with a settler colonization process. There are resisting groups of Dene and Inuit peoples themselves, including the Dene Youth Alliance, who proclaim:
The Land is very sacred to us. We as Indigenous People have depended on the land since time immemorial. Our innate connection to the land, with the animals, the plants, and the waters has been the vital foundation of the different cultures of the NWT. All life is sacred. The proposed Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline will be forged over our sacred lands (2003). 3
The Dene themselves have many times articulated this proposed pipeline as a project that will do to them today what was done to Indians on both sides of the 49th parallel, including the infamous James Bay relocations in the North of Quebec:
"In James Bay, when the white man decided that he wanted to again play God and change the course of mighty rivers [...], he corralled the Indian people into reserves and flooded the Indian land. The nations of Indians and Eskimos in the north have been slightly luckier.
For awhile it seemed we might escape the greed of the southern system. The north was seen as a frozen wasteland, not fit for the civilized ways of the white man. But that has been changing over the past few years. Now the system of genocide practiced on our Indian brothers in the south over the past few hundred years is being turned loose on us, and our Eskimo brothers. [...] if we are forced to blow up the pipeline, I hope you will not only look on the violence of Indian action, but also on the violence of your own nation which would force us to take such a course." --Philip Blake, Tetlit Zheh [Fort Macpherson](1975). 4
One way that Canada is carrying out the deepening of the colonization of the north is by spreading the military into northern Arctic areas. In these regions there are disputes over the borders in the Ocean, "ownership" of northern islands with the neighbouring states of Greenland/Denmark, Siberia/Russia and Alaska/USA and dispute over whether Canada actually owns the Northwest Passage about to open. The US and Europe both claim it as International waters. So Canada sends in the air force, the armed forces and naval warships-- in their largest ever such exercises. These maneuvers, which have so far been beaten back by inclement Arctic conditions, have now been semi-immortalized by PM Paul Martin who proclaimed in his October 2004 throne speech that Canada will "assert sovereignty" in the far north and throughout the Arctic. Between August 12th and 31st "Exercise Narwhal" was conducted in Nunavut, the recent proclaimed Inuit territory. It was both an attempt at gunboat diplomacy to intimidate the Danes, and to entrench a "Canadian claim" to the Arctic and render any dissent from indigenous populations null and void.
However, the operations were a total flop: soldiers were lost and bewildered on frozen tundra overnight, maneuvers couldn't be finished and even a Sea King Helicopter attempting to take off in inhospitable Arctic weather burst into flames. A report was issued after the "exercise", including stating the obvious: "[T]he weather can turn on you very quickly."5 Colonel Normand Courtier (commander of Canadian Forces Northern Area) has stated that the military needs to be better prepared for operations in the Arctic. And should the military be better prepared, so must we be, especially when these struggles from West to East start to truly heat up in the next decade. Like the military, those who do not want to destroy the wounded but still proud and free nations of the north must learn quickly from their own mistakes and learn how "to be better prepared when working in the far North".6
The other form of deepening colonization is by tearing up and ignoring the recommendations of the original Berger inquiry to streamline a new "environmental impact assessment". Despite the Berger recommendation that no pipeline be built while land claims have yet to be "extinguished", the Deh Cho nations are being overrun in precisely the manner warned against. Some have already signed on to a proposed pipeline, but others, with still unsettled claims, have not. Recently, relentless pressure from oil and gas corporations is breaking down the government Indians, with Chief Kenya Norweigian stating "We're finally going to get some good news, and hopefully have some closure to this court challenge,"7 but her definition of good news varies from mine. Nonetheless, certain sectors of the Deh Cho peoples continue to resist: "People can plan and do what they want, but I guarantee you not one foot of pipe is going to go through my community unless I say yes. That's the bottom line,"8 stated Hay River Reserve Chief Roy Fabian on October 28th. A rift between traditionalists and "modern" Indians has opened here, too.
Mentioned earlier were the concerns of activists in the Dene Youth Alliance. Drawing their inspiration from and in concert with a lot of other critiques that have been brought forth by indigenous sovereigntists from Africa to Latin America and across even the First World, they state aims of:
"...to educate on the themes of Globalization, Environmental Justice, Environmental Racism, Colonization/Internalized Oppression, Sustainable Resource Development and Alternative Clean Energy Sources.
We desire to collaborate with youth and elders in the communities, especially communities directly impacted by industrial development, to ensure that their concerns are addressed.
The Dene Youth Alliance intends to maintain a visible presence in the North and to unite people who have similar concerns and are interested in protecting our land as an inheritance that is vital to our existence on a global level.
If there is to be only one word that you take away from that core of principles, it must be the word "global". The Deh Cho and all the Dene nations, the Metis, the Inuit and the very ecosphere itself hangs in the balance (global warming is destroying the Arctic daily, heating at a rate ten times faster than the global average).9 The time is now. I previously alluded to the Dene nations belief 30 years ago that solidarity activists would see their struggle along the same lines as the struggle for much of the colonized world. Their pleas for help were mostly unheard by those of us in the South. This cannot be the case any longer. In 1975, the Dene issued the original plea:
"[A]s the peoples and nations of the world have come to recognize the existence and rights of those people who make up the third world the day must come and will come when the nations of the fourth world will come to be recognized and respected. [...] Our plea to the world is to help us in our struggle to find a place in the world community where we can recognize our right to self-determination as a distinct people, and as a nation."10
Many of you reading this marched against the war on Iraq. You spoke against modern colonialism and the rights of people to determine their own destiny. You probably consider yourself an environmentalist as well. You certainly are likely to oppose the destruction of people and the planet for the needs of oil and gas. There has been resistance in the north for thirty years, holding out against the odds. Now, energy and greed concerns threaten to make it all in vain. Real nations facing the Canadian contribution to a war for oil. Will we stand with them, make their story heard? To quote an old phrase that has rarely been more apt: If not you, then who? If not now, then when? The DYA summed it up in three simple lines.
We have the right to defend Our Land and Our Life.
We have the right to defend what we have inherited from our Ancestors.
Our Land is more important than money.11
And let me add only one thought. The rest of us don't have the right to pretend we don't know -- any longer.
Macdonald Stainsby is a freelance writer from Vancouver, now living in Montreal and studying at Concordia University. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Berger, Thomas R. Northern frontier, Northern Homeland. Douglas and McIntyre ltd, 1988: Vancouver.
2. Dene Nation: The Colony Within. Mel Watkins, ed. University of Toronto Press: Toronto 1980. p.10.
4. Watkins, op cit. p.6 and p.9.
5. Nathan VanderKlippe, National Post pA8 September 30, 2004 (CanWest News Service).
9.Eilperin, Juliet and Weiss, Rick. "Arctic Heating Up Fast: Study" Montreal Gazette. 31 October, 2004, A9.
10."Dene Declaration", Watkins, op cit p. 4.