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Red tape trap puts another season at Frontier Lodge at risk

Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation chief Darryl Marlowe has expressed "outrage" after the band was told by the government that it won't receive an exemption from a business license requirement for its Frontier Lodge, contrary to what the GNWT said last October. photo courtesy of Frontier Lodge

The Lutsel K'e Dene First Nation (LKDFN) is losing patience.

Its leadership issued a statement this week claiming another GNWT bureaucratic snag is standing in the way of the reopening of the Frontier Fishing Lodge.

After the First Nation was told last fall it could receive an exemption from the required business license under the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA), it is now being told that exemption isn't possible, chief Darryl Marlowe said March 1.

The news on the exemption comes almost one year after the GNWT unexpectedly cancelled the occupancy permit for the decades-old lodge.

On Oct. 16, 2020, Premier Caroline Cochrane told Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn in a letter that “an exemption for licensed tourism operators from the requirements of the current legislative framework is being advanced while … the development of the guidelines are completed.”

The change in position has left LKDFN outraged, explained Marlowe.

“The crushing impacts of GNWT bureaucracy and the collapse of the tourism industry as a result of the Covid pandemic meant that 2020 was a complete write-off for the lodge. We are now concerned that 2021 won't be any better.”

Ray Griffith, LKDFN's tourism development officer said the band was informed that an exemption couldn't be made a little over a month ago.

At issue is the requirement for Frontier to obtain a liquor license, after the band purchased the lodge from the former owners in December of 2019.

Permit rules a 'trap'

MACA spokesperson Jay Boast said that under the Business License Act, a new liquor license requires proof of a business license. It also requires an occupancy permit under the Fire Prevention Act. An inspection from the Office of the Fire Marshal must take place before both documents can be provided.

Griffith said that the policy framework has been a “trap” for LKDFN after they bought the lodge.

“It was just a change of ownership. We had to go through all the paperwork (and) because of that we got our head in a noose that we can't get out of without being able to operate. The other lodges weren't in that position because they didn't sell (their businesses). All they had to do was renew their tourism operator license.

“It's entirely unfair. The government is in an extremely untenable position. There's no other reason they're doing this other than the change in ownership.”

Griffith said his team met with MACA Minister Paulie Chinna on Feb. 26, and on March 1 was given a checklist of things the fire marshal would look for in the inspection.

“That's a step in the right direction, but that still doesn't resolve anything.”

Boast said the fire marshal is ready to inspect the site and determine what further safety measures are required. MACA would work with the Lodge to address those measures and once it's deemed safe “we have been assured that the licensing for business and liquor can occur within a matter of days.”

Vague standards are the new frontier

But Griffith said the situation is more complicated than that.

He explained that most fishing lodges were built 50 or 60 years ago with little regard to building codes. Last summer, Frontier undertook major renovations to bring the site up to standard but it ran out of time and the upgrades weren't completed.

“A lot of lodges won't pass (the inspections) in the NWT,” Griffith said. “The point is that it'll cost money to bring them up to standards. And the lodges are broke right now. This process will shut us down. We're willing to work with them to upgrade the standards over a period of years and if they can help cover the costs.”

Another issue is that the inspection checklist has only led to more questions for LKDFN.

“So, for example, they'll look at wiring or fire extinguishers but nothing specific on the wiring or the type of fire extinguishers. There's no information. What's the level of standards they're looking for? There's no mention of it. What's the level of acceptability? They haven't assured us that there will be money available for any retrofitting. They haven't assured us of anything other than if we meet the standards, which we don't even know if we'll meet them yet.”

MACA can meet with the LKDFN and lodge owners near the end of April to further discuss the safety standards, Griffith said.

'Extreme concern' from NWT Tourism

In a media release on March 2, NWT Tourism board chairperson Harold Grinde expressed “extreme concern” over the GNWT's bureaucratic delays of Frontier's permits.

“It is our understanding that the bureaucratic hold-up is related to a change that occurred in the Tourism Act in 2007. The GNWT recognized in 2013 that there were issues with implementing the 2007 change, and again in 2017 the issues with the implementation of the act were raised. This has been a long-standing issue that remains unresolved, without a policy in place for remote lodges,” Grinde said.

“This change in the interpretation and implementation of the policy which was flagged in 2007 could not come at a worse time for the tourism industry. It is no secret that the tourism industry was the first affected, the hardest hit, and will take the longest to recover from the global pandemic.”

The onus is on the government to ensure that licensing and permitting processes are clear and it should be helping businesses to succeed, not putting up more bureaucratic blocks, he said.

“NWT Tourism is in complete agreement with Chief Marlowe – an exemption must be issued to Frontier Lodge while the GNWT resolves their own internal policy issue. This is the only way that the lodge can position itself for economic recovery.”

Griffith hopes a solution can be found so that the LKDFN's goal in purchasing Frontier can be realized.

“The purpose was to continue the fishing business and we wanted to add more culturally-relevant Dene culture packages. We've got the new Thaidene Nene National Park here. There will be people looking for more cultural tourism. But the business with the GNWT has been a huge drain on our time and energy.”