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Where pipe dreams, fears collide

Everything about the $7.5-billion Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline plan is epic, even the struggle for and against it, reports DAVE EBNER

Globe and Mail Update

FORT SIMPSON, NWT — It is a cold, clear day. The January sun sits low on the horizon, the temperature hovers around -30 C. Jonas Antoine, a 64-year-old Deh Cho elder, peers through the window of an old trappers cabin, the embodiment of the way people of the north lived and survived on the land for hundreds of years, an era now nearly ended.

The cabin is about a 20-minute hike from a large staging ground that would be used to help build the proposed $7.5-billion Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline, a thump of heavy industry in an almost pristine wilderness.

Mr. Antoine fears the land will be irrevocably shaken by that thump -- and by the development that will follow. On Wednesday, the first of many publics hearings are set to begin in Inuvik.

The epic regulatory process will assess the pipeline, a project that has divided northern communities, pitted tradition against progress and threatened to derail the north's biggest enterprise.

"We want to hand the land to our grandchildren the way we received it, not polluted and not disemboweled," Mr. Antoine says.

Later in the day, about 20 kilometres away at Thomas Simpson High School in the village of Fort Simpson, Mikhaela Antoine works on her résumé in the library. The 15-year-old Grade 10 student is Mr. Antoine's niece and wants to become a nurse, or maybe a pediatrician. She says Fort Simpson needs better health care and she supports the proposed pipeline.

"So we can buy things," she says, "things that we need."

Fort Simpson, home to about 1,270, is the centre of Deh Cho land, and the divides among families and the village are found throughout the Northwest Territories. There is as much hope here for future prosperity as there is uncertainty about what ills development might bring.

Those divides underlie the process ahead, with 137 meetings set through the entire year to vet the 1,200-kilometre pipeline that would carry gas from three major fields in the Mackenzie Delta to existing infrastructure in Alberta.

There is no doubt southerners need the gas. The price of the commodity stands at quintuple the rate of the 1990s, squeezing businesses and making for jarring home heating bills.

Need for the line in the north is less clear to some residents, people who don't believe locals will benefit, that the gas and dollars will flow south, leaving little for northerners.

"I don't approve of it," says Louisa Lafferty, the employment co-ordinator at the band office in Fort Good Hope, a hamlet of about 550 residents just south of the Arctic Circle. "We don't have enough people trained. Are our people going to get an opportunity?"

There is already one pipeline running through part of the region, built in the 1980s from Norman Wells to northern Alberta to carry oil. For most northerners, it brought no tangible benefits -- just 10 jobs in Norman Wells and eight in Fort Simpson.

The pipeline runs right behind the trappers' cabin, and the gas pipeline would cut through just several kilometres away.

Keyna Norwegian, chief of the Liidlii Kue First Nation, part of the Deh Cho, thinks the gas line will be another disappointment.

"I don't see it as a benefit or a need for the people of the Deh Cho," she says in her office in Fort Simpson. "Everybody says, 'What are you going to do for jobs?' We've survived thousands of years; I'm sure we can survive the way we are."

Deh Cho territory covers roughly 40 per cent of the proposed pipeline route, the southern end. The area has already seen and benefited from some energy development around Fort Liard, near the British Columbia border. But further north, in places like Good Hope and Inuvik in the Delta, there is barely any economy at all. Without government, there is almost nothing -- and no prospects.

It is another divide, one where residents of the Delta see first nations further south jeopardizing their future, their only chance to build a sustainable economy.

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