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Northern economy at crossroads: premier

Husky Energy's 2006 drilling and testing program in the Sahtu region is pictured here. Earlier this month, Premier Bob McLeod said he was frustrated by the slow pace of oil and gas development in the North at the Arctic Oil and Gas Symposium in Calgary. photo courtesy of Husky Energy Inc.

Premier Bob McLeod gave a keynote address on the NWT’s infrastructure needs, and the glacial pace the territory has endured in addressing them, at the Arctic Oil and Gas Symposium in Calgary earlier this month.

In that speech, he referred to a concept he called "eco-colonialism."

"(It’s) the idea that all Indigenous people are anti-resource-development, that they don’t have the knowledge and abilities to make responsible decisions about their land if they appear to be pro-development," McLeod told News/North.

He said activist groups based in the south and the United States are hijacking discussions about development projects and promoting resistance to them, against the wishes of some communities that are in favour of development.

"Being Indigenous myself, I find that offensive," said McLeod. "I believe that Indigenous peoples have every right to benefit from their land and resources, and those that are less supportive of resource development on their lands have the right to also voice their opposition."

Daniel T’seleie, a lawyer and activist from Fort Good Hope and a co-founder of Dene Nahjo, said this definition of colonialism does not do justice to the word as it relates to the modern discourse around decolonization.

"Colonialism is how and why Indigenous people’s land was taken from them by a settler state," said T’seleie.

He continued that the word describes the series of events, including residential schools and separations of families, that led to Indigenous peoples being moved off the land and into communities wherein they now have to rely on government support and the wage economy to live.

"Indigenous people lived and thrived in the North for millennia with their own types of economies," said T’seleie, pointing out that the word "economy" is just a concept used to describe the organization and distribution of resources, such as food, heat and shelter, among communities.

Speaking about the future of NWT communities, both T’seleie and McLeod describe the same endpoint: communities with the resources they need; people with meaningful jobs, able to provide for themselves and their families as well as having free time, a good quality of life and the ability to obtain luxury items.

The difference between their views is in how to get there and how to put NWT communities in command of their own futures, benefiting from their own lands and self-governing.
McLeod said the GNWT hasn’t been able to climb out of the recession that began more than a decade ago.

"I look at 2007, where our GDP was $4.5 billion. It’s now at approximately $3.8 billion," he said. "We’ve lost [that] primarily because of a decline in resource development and we’ve also lost about 800 jobs in that period."

He said the GNWT’s main priority projects are infrastructure needed to make resource development viable: the Mackenzie Valley Highway, the expansion of the Taltson hydro facility and the all-weather "road to resources" that would connect our highway system to the Slave Geological Province.

"The discussions that we are having is looking at if oil and gas doesn’t return because we can’t get over the environmental opposition, if there will never be another pipeline built in Canada and we can’t transform our economy," said McLeod.

"We can look at what the potential is, you know, developing our knowledge economy. We could look at tourism, agriculture, fishing. What else can you do?"

These do not appear to have the capacity in the near-term, however, to fill the employment gap left behind when the diamond mines close.

All three of the territory’s diamond mines — Ekati, Diavik and Gahcho Kué — are slated to close by 2034.

T’seleie believes there is a way forward beyond the resource economy by investing in communities to make them self-sufficient with local food and energy production.

"We now live in small communities that are dependent on southern imports of food and energy," said T’seleie. "These are things we used to provide for ourselves and that situation has fundamentally shifted. The relic of those colonial policies is that the only way our people can meet the high cost of living is by getting high-paying jobs. Often these jobs are in extractive industries."

He said it’s irresponsible to promote oil and gas in a world facing severe climate change.

"Report after report and study after study have come out highlighting the seriousness of climate change to the entire planet but particularly to Arctic communities," he said. "This is a very real and serious problem."

T’seleie said he wants people to consider other things that can be done to address climate change while benefiting communities.

"What (the government) is doing is calling on Canada to subsidize the fossil fuel industry. These are the richest corporations in the world."

He said that rather than Canada continuing to provide incentives and subsidies to the industry to spur activity in the North, it should invest in measures that would make communities self-sufficient.

T’seleie said local food and energy production, as well as production of other things like building materials for new homes, could provide income and meaningful work while steering support away from fossil fuels.