A drawn border may separate the Vuntut Gwitchin Government (VGG) and the Gwich’in Tribal Council (GTC), but that means nothing to the caribou herds they are fighting tooth and nail to preserve.

To that end, both are calling on Canadian banks to join with their American counterparts and pledge to not fund any drilling in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Arctic Refuge) in Alaska, where the Porcupine Caribou herd traditionally calve and raise their young.

The Porcupine Caribou Herd is one of the last healthy large-migratory herds in the world.
photo courtesy of Marsha Branigan

U.S. President Donald Trump has been trying to open the sacred lands up to oil and gas drilling since he was elected. However, a sustained campaign by the VGG and GTC has convinced all but one major U.S. bank, as well as numerous international banks, to pledge they will not to invest in any projects.

VGG caribou coordinator Liz Staples said a lease sale of the Arctic Refuge could still happen within months once an environmental impact statement, which was due last fall, is completed.

Staples said the record-low oil prices has not deterred the Trump administration and said Canadian Banks had a role to play in protecting the North’s traditional ways of life.

“Drilling in the Arctic Refuge has been driven by politics, not economics,” she said. “Action by Canadian banks will further limit external funding opportunities available to companies interested in pursuing exploration and development of the Arctic Refuge and provide momentum for our advocacy work.

“As financing options disappear, some companies interested in pursuing exploration and development of the Arctic Refuge may be precluded from being able to do so due to the lack of external funding. In addition, Canadian banks joining their U.S. and global peers will further underscore our message that drilling in the Arctic Refuge is bad business and in doing so help build pressure for other companies and individuals to acknowledge this.”

A delegation representing both groups was in Toronto last December to speak with the major Canadian banks. So far the banks have expressed “clear understanding of the immense human and environmental impacts and financial risks” of the Trump administration’s plan but so far has not made an official pledge.

GTC Grand Chief Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan said she was optimistic banks would fall in step with their international counterparts, noting just because the banks haven’t said anything yet didn’t mean that wasn’t the direction they were going.

“It tells me hopefully they’re making good decisions and hopefully will soon  inform us they’ll follow suit,” she said. “Our people are still heavily reliant on what the land provides for us, so we’re asking the banks to make this commitment for everyone. If they can commit to not financing any new exploration and drilling in the Arctic refuge, that’s a step in the right direction.”

Greenland-Morgan added the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the importance of food security and environmental stewardship, especially as the economic fallout of the crisis begins to affect food production in agricultural centres around the world. The North was particularly well adapted to weather such crises precisely because of the connection people still have with the land and wildlife.

“People are realizing we don’t have so much control over things. With all the concerns about shelves going bare in major cities and how things unfolded, it reminded us just how fortunate we are to have the caribou,” she said. “If the roads shut down and the shelves were to go bare up here, our freezers are still full of caribou and fish.

“When we’re forced into situations such as global pandemics, it just shows us we need to keep our backyard as clean as possible from pollution.”

She pointed out the GTC had a lot of experience standing up for environmental issues and they weren’t going to stop anytime soon.

“Our mandate to keep oil and gas drilling out of the refuge is a directive from our Elders back in 1988,” she said. “That gets re-affirmed every year at our annual general assembly. Caribou is our primary food source, that’s why what we’ve been trying to do for decades is so important to us.

“If everything were to shut down, we would be okay because we have our land and our animals, which is our biggest resource. There is no amount of money that could replace that. We have a duty to leave things behind for each generation to survive on.”

Eric Bowling

Breaking News Reporter and Digital Editor for NNSL, Eric operates out of Inuvik in the Beaufort Delta. He's four years into his Northern adventure and is eager to learn more about life in the Arctic Circle....

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