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AT YOUR SERVICE: Alternatives North shines a light on social, environmental justice in the NWT

Serving the community comprises a variety of activities, and sometimes that includes shaking things up and questioning established patterns of thinking.

Referred to years ago in a News/North editorial as the “unofficial opposition” of the NWT, Yellowknife-based organization Alternatives North has advocated for social and environmental justice since its founding in 1991. It was jointly founded by the Catholic Diocese and the NWT Federation of Labour.

Alternatives North is a coalition of individual volunteers and organizations. There are between a dozen and 20 active, regular volunteers, as Ben McDonald, a director with the group told Yellowknifer.

Local activist Suzette Montreuil, left, listens as author Joan Kuyek speaks at the Rethinking the Future of NWT Mining event, organized by Alternatives North and held at Northern United Place on Jan. 14. photo courtesy of Alternatives North

“We're mostly involved in social justice, anti-poverty work, Aboriginal rights, environmental causes and bringing attention to climate change,” said McDonald, who joined the organization in 1992.

The NWT being heavily dependent economically on mining and resource extraction, Alternatives North has focused a lot of its work on the environmental effects of those industries.

The group is one of the non-governmental organizations that is a member of the Giant Mine Oversight Board, itself part of the remediation project to contain and manage the arsenic trioxide and other pollutants left over from Giant Mine after it was closed in 2004.

The organization applied to become part of the Giant Mine Remediation Project in late 2010 and was accepted in early 2011 by the review board.

“The powers that be recognize the participation of Alternatives North. We have people with environmental experience working on the remediation,” McDonald said.

The group's work with the board is ongoing and on Jan. 21 its members gave a presentation about the remediation project to the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board. It has also given workshops on perpetual environmental care as it relates to the remediation.

Sometimes the group's work is less about formulating new ideas than it is acting on what is already known or on the books in terms of environmental policy.

“If environmental legislation is there but the regulations haven't been passed yet we try to influence that to speed it up.”

One of the aims of the group's anti-poverty work has been calculating a living wage for Northerners, and for at least the last three years it has published calculations on its website.

The group found that each parent in a family of four in Yellowknife must earn $23.95 an hour working 37.5 hours a week for a decent standard of living, according to an online post last October.

The wage for Hay River stands at $24.75 an hour and $23.78 an hour in Inuvik.

“We calculated that to combat poverty and to indicate that it's not only high prices [behind the high cost of living], it's low wages,” said McDonald.

“Living Wage rates show what it takes to live decently in the NWT. To ensure this basic standard of living, we can either raise wages, decrease costs or increase subsidies,” said Alternative North's Suzette Montreuil in the post, and who worked on the calculation research. “Either way, we have to do something to help lower income working residents.”

In line with its character as a coalition of groups, Alternatives North was involved last May with the formation of the Yellowknife chapter of Our Time For A Green New Deal.

That group is “the YK chapter of the national, non-partisan, youth-led campaign to push politicians to support a Green New Deal - a vision for a community-driven climate plan that's in line with Indigenous knowledge and UN climate science - and elect those that do,” according to Our Time's Facebook page.

“We helped them with the logistics of getting things started, like meeting rooms and promotion,” McDonald said.

Our Time Yellowknife is currently lobbying MP Michael McLeod to support an NDP plan to establish a Canadian version of Green New Deal legislation that would mitigate the effects of climate change and economic inequality. Green New Deal policies have been espoused south of the border by such politicians as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders.

As Alternatives North looks to the future, it wants to continue its role in providing – as its name suggests – alternatives to development in the North.

“We've tried to come up with alternative economic models like when some people wanted fracking in the Sahtu, or drilling projects in the Beaufort Sea. We tried to come up with economic alternatives to that, like tourism, alternative energy deals, or better child care,” McDonald said.