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Yellowknives Dene blast GNWT, say their support of Slave Geological road obtained under 'false pretenses'

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The Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN) has pulled its support for one of the GNWT's largest infrastructure projects.

In a sharply written letter, signed by both Ndilo Chief Ernest Betsina and Dettah Chief Ed Sangris, the First Nation leaders stated that the Government of the Northwest Territories has not worked collaboratively as had been understood over the past year to ensure local Indigenous and northern businesses benefit from the project.

The letter declaring that the YKDFN would no longer support the Slave Geological Province access project was shared with news outlets Friday afternoon.

The proposed route for the Slave Geological Province Access Corridor, which would link the highway system to the NWT’s diamond mines. graphic courtesy of the GNWT

The Slave Geological Province project according to the GNWT Department of Infrastructure promises to extend mineral extraction potential over the next decade by building an access road with hydro lines into the eastern region of the Northwest Territories up to the border of Nunavut.

Last August, the GNWT secured $40 million for pre-emptive work on the 413 kilometre, two-lane gravel route.  Thirty million dollars of that money came from the federal government, with the remainder coming from the territory.

That money, was "to support environmental regulatory reviews and planning studies to advance the Slave Geological Province Corridor," according to the department.

The YKDFN letter states to get the federal money, the GNWT had to demonstrate First Nations buy-in. YKDFN involvement is central to the project because the access road is to run through the heart of Chief Drygeese Territory.

"The YKDFN letter of support was given based on the premise that we would be able to have input on how that money was best utilized through working groups and steering groups," states the letter. "We now know that our support for the GNWT's funding request was provided under false pretenses."

Sources close to the project say that the First Nation has most at stake in the project as environmental concerns are paramount, especially involving the potential of caribou migration and habitat.

"Based on our MOU discussions, we supported the GNWT's request to the federal government for funding (letter issued on May 1st, 2019)," the letter continues. "We believed that the Yellowknives Dene First Nation would have input on how this project would eventually take shape.

"Both Chiefs signed this MOU on August 13th, 2019, as of today it remains unsigned by the GNWT."

As an ongoing issue more broadly, the YKDFN charge that the territory's procurement policy is not helping Indigenous and Northern businesses.

It charges this is why the First Nation is now being left out of contracts for the project's initial steps while multi-national firms from the south benefit.

NWT MP Michael McLeod, left, and then GNWT Minister of Infrastructure Wally Schumman announced funding for infrastructure connecting NWT to Nunavut in August 2019 at the legislative assembly.
NNSL file photo

"Antiquated methods of procurement and Indigenous engagement continue to hold our economy back; consequently, we can no longer remain silent as our Territory slips further into decline," states the letter.

The letter states that the money isn't going to building skill capacity among northern and Indigenous people or supporting the territorial business sector.

NNSL Media sent a series of question to the GNWT Department of Infrastructure and Tu Nedhe-Willideh MLA Steve Norn Friday afternoon.

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

See the full letter 'Yellowknives Dene First Nation retract support for the Slave Geological Province Corridor until the GNWT takes the action necessary to ensure that Northerners benefit from the project' here.

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