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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.

"There is no industry in this area," says Fred Carmichael, based in Inuvik and president of the Gwich'in Tribal Council, which is a strong supporter of the pipeline. "This is critical to the north. Sure, there's a downside to everything. But, you know, anything's better than raising your children on welfare."

The biggest challenge, he says, is training, making sure his people are ready to take advantage when the time comes.

Like many northern leaders, Mr. Carmichael grew up on the land, born in the Delta, hunting and trapping until his late teens. He then pursued a career as a pilot and started an airline. It is another divide, the last generation to live on the land and the first generation to embrace the ways of the south.

Now 71, Mr. Carmichael wants more for his people than government handouts. And he rejects emotional arguments about traditions and living off the land.

"If kids want a light, they flick a switch. They want heat, they turn up a thermostat. They don't go chop wood or haul it out of the bush. They don't know how. So let's stop fooling ourselves and say we want to go back to the land. . . . Let's be real here, and say, 'Listen, we've moved on. The land was good to us. We can no longer make a living out there but the creator has provided an alternative for us.' "

The Inuvialuit also call the Delta home and also strongly support the pipeline. Like the Gwich'in, and the Sahtu in the central Mackenzie, the Inuvialuit have settled land claims, deals that underscore their backing for the project. The Deh Cho in the south are the fourth group on the route but have no finalized claim with Ottawa, a lack of legal standing that underscores discontent and distrust in that region.

Back at the school library in Fort Simpson, a couple of students are playing guitar in the corner after classes are over. The words of Mr. Carmichael don't resonate with everyone here. While Mikhaela Antoine helps a friend with her résumé, two other students sit nearby, explaining why they came away from a meeting of youth organized by the territorial government in Yellowknife in November opposed to the pipeline.

"I went in liking the pipeline and I came out not liking," says Jessy Leahy, a 16-year-old Grade 11 student. A presentation from Environment Canada officials influenced him in particular. "All the ecosystems in the region will be affected by the pipeline," he says.

Jackie Thompson, a 15-year-old Grade 10 student, says the repercussions of development will be felt by her generation, not the current leadership that mostly supports the pipeline.

"It's going to be us that will have to deal with the problems of the land and the drugs and alcohol it will bring."

Outside, it's about four in the afternoon and the sun is setting over Fort Simpson, situated on a small island where the Liard and Mackenzie rivers meet. The trees -- aspen, spruce, pine -- are all white, covered thick with hoarfrost, stunningly beautiful. But the hoarfrost here isn't normal, occurring so intensely this year only because December was unusually warm and wet.

For Herb Norwegian, Deh Cho grand chief, the hoarfrost is not a good omen. He has stood opposed to the pipeline, arguing the Deh Cho aren't being treated fairly. He too grew up on the land and feels it changing. "It's apocalyptic, like a nuclear winter," Mr. Norwegian says. "The only thing missing is the four horsemen. . . . You can almost hear the bulldozers rumbling."

He speaks passionately but divides are everywhere. His older brother, Robert Norwegian, works in the Deh Cho area as a regional liaison for Imperial Oil Ltd., the pipeline's main proponent.

Robert Norwegian spent several decades working in the pipeline business in Alberta. Like Mr. Carmichael, he says the past is gone but what's replacing it is valuable, too.

"It's not just like it was in the '70s here. People had outdoor shithouses. No phone. Wood for heat," Mr. Norwegian says.

While not a rich community, Fort Simpson has amenities and advances are being made. High-speed Internet became available in December. It is progress that's underpinned by oil and gas, Mr. Norwegian says, fuels that make everything from snowmobiles to air ambulances possible.

It is divides that define pipeline talk, divides that run so deep that getting to this week for public hearings has taken more than three decades. A pipeline was proposed and rejected in the 1970s, before land claims had been settled.

Work began anew in 2000 -- six years ago. "I understand what [Herb] is talking about but I believe what I'm doing is right," Robert Norwegian says. "But how can you say no to a lifeline that keeps you alive? That's what I say."

Pipeline primer

The proposed Mackenzie Valley gas project would be the biggest construction effort ever in the Northwest Territories, consisting of two pipelines and three major gas field developments.

The main 30-inch gas pipeline would begin near Inuvik and run 1,194 kilometres to northern Alberta.

The Aboriginal Pipeline Group, made up of three northern first nations organizations, would own one-third of the main pipeline.

The cost of the entire project is estimated at $7.5-billion, with roughly $4-billion for the main pipelines and $3.5-billion for fields and gathering systems.

The project would cut through mostly untouched wilderness and spur further development, raising environmental issues.

First nations peoples are worried about traditional ways of living off the land and how many benefits -- jobs, cash -- they will see from the project.

Imperial Oil, the main proponent, says the project is only marginally profitable and worries cost will escalate further. A 10-inch pipeline from Inuvik to Norman Wells would carry gas liquids -- very light oil -- and connect with an existing Enbridge crude line.

The fields -- Taglu, Niglintgak and Parsons Lake -- contain about six trillion cubic feet of gas, which once connected would increase Canada's proved reserves by 10 per cent and are enough to warm all Canadian gas-heated homes for six years.

Arctic ventures

As hearings begin into the Mackenzie Valley pipeline, Report On Business energy reporter Dave Ebner, in a three-day series, examines the $7.5-billion plan to slake the South's thirst for natural gas. Tomorrow: Paving the way for a new gas route, one deal at a time. Wednesday: The North gets industrious.

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