FORT GOOD HOPE, NWT The icy winter road to Fort Good Hope is rugged and rutted, a winding, 149-kilometre route northwest from Norman Wells that roughly marks the proposed route of the Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline.
It is barely a road at all, only in service for three months during the year's coldest season when the ground is frozen. It runs through otherwise untouched boreal forest, through bogs and past streams, over ground populated by moose and caribou and lined with spindly trees, vegetation that thins as the Arctic Circle approaches.
Severe ups and downs limit the speed on the remote road to no more than 20 kilometres an hour at times. The challenge of making the trek is much like the journey being made by the first nations peoples of the north, a difficult one that has divided communities and regions along the Mackenzie River, the longest river in Canada.
While year-long public hearings to review the $7.5-billion pipeline project begin tomorrow, unity among first nations remains tenuous. Divides have slowed, stalled and almost stopped the project.
"We have to start getting out of our tribal thinking," says David Codzi, sitting in the large log cabin community hall in the hilly hamlet of Good Hope, on the Mackenzie River. The 31-year-old is a rising leader from Colville Lake, northeast of Good Hope, two of the five communities in the area covered by a land claims settlement with the Sahtu people. The Sahtu are one of four aboriginal groups affected by the project.
"Everybody has to be working for one another," Mr. Codzi says. "It's the only way to get ahead as a region, trusting one another. One area's wealth can bankroll the next."
Trust and co-operation ebbs and flows among northern first nations. In 2001, the Aboriginal Pipeline Group was formed, an organization driven by Inuvialuit and Gwich'in, whose homes are centred around the Mackenzie Delta, where three major gas fields were found in the early 1970s. It has the best prospects for future exploration and development.
The Sahtu are also part of the Aboriginal Pipeline Group, which would have a one-third ownership stake in the pipeline and possibly see $20-million in annual profit. But the Deh Cho First Nations, a coalition of smaller groups further south, never joined -- and remain outside the organization.
Divisions are everywhere. Among the Sahtu alone, there are seven land corporations that rule over five communities, not one of them home to more than 1,000 people.
The many divisions led to years of arduous negotiations for a pipeline that was supposed to be in service next year and now won't be moving gas until late 2011, at the earliest.
The battles intensified last year. Imperial Oil Ltd. -- the pipeline's main proponent -- halted work on the project in April, largely because of what the company called unreasonable demands from first nations over contract terms for benefits and access to their land.
The federal government moved to break the impasse in the summer between Imperial and the first nations groups, promising $500-million over 10 years for social and economic concerns.
Stephen Kakfwi, born in Good Hope and a former premier of the Northwest Territories, had been demanding on behalf of the Sahtu annual payments directly from Imperial, tired of always standing with a hand out hoping for dollars from distant Ottawa.
But when the pressure grew to finalize deals last fall, Mr. Kakfwi says he was pushed out of his job as a negotiator.
"They said, 'Jesus, Steve is going to kill the pipeline,' " Mr. Kakfwi remembers during an interview in Yellowknife, saying he pressed for $8-million a year just for Good Hope. "I was trying to get people to see we could get a better deal. . . . [But] Good Hope was read the riot act by Imperial and the federal government."
Back in Good Hope, home to about 550, the local leadership remembers the story differently, saying Mr. Kakfwi would make declarations on behalf of the community when he didn't have the authority to do so.
"[Stephen] speaking up on the radio really put a crimp on the negotiations," Arthur Tobac, president of one of the land corporations in Good Hope, says a couple of hours before a community fiddle dance. The Sahtu got a good deal, Mr. Tobac insists.
"We've done the best we could on all sides."
Later in the evening, just ahead of the boisterous community dance that draws more than 100 people of all ages, chief and mayor Ronald Pierrot says he isn't totally satisfied with the results but suggests intransigence is reasonable only to a point.
"You don't want to be pushing Imperial over the edge. Then you won't be getting anything," Mr. Pierrot says.
The hard talks wore everyone down, says Imperial's top executive on the Mackenzie project, but once a sense of urgency gripped the negotiations, progress was finally made.
"Once you talk through the issues for weeks or months like this thing has gone on, people not surprisingly can lose patience and question each other's intentions and real commitment," says Randy Broiles, Imperial senior vice-president.
"[But] once the aboriginal communities understood we didn't have two or three more years to continue to talk through the benefits and access side of things, that's when the breakthrough started coming."
The Inuvialuit and the Gwich'in have approved their benefits and access deals, agreements that outline key items such as dollars for land through which the buried pipeline will cross and preferential use of first nations businesses.
The Deh Cho have no deal and say they have been treated poorly by Imperial because they are the only group on the pipeline route without a settled land claim. But the situation improved in December, says Keyna Norwegian, a Deh Cho leader.
Still, she remains against the pipeline, though other communities in the Deh Cho are in favour.
The southern portion of the Sahtu -- whose centre is Tulita -- has also signed on. Good Hope and Colville Lake vote Feb. 8 on the benefits and access agreement. The outcome is not a given, though by most rough counts about two-thirds are in support of the pipeline, a figure that appears consistent in Good Hope and through the Mackenzie Valley.
Carol Jackson isn't convinced. Walking with her young son Theodore as the sun sets over Good Hope in the late afternoon, the temperature falling toward -40, she doesn't see what her town will get out of the massive development.
"All together, I'm really against it," says Ms. Jackson, 35, bundled in a parka, cuffs lined with marten fur and hood lined with wolverine fur.
"If it does go through, it'll just destroy what I grew up with."
But the hunting and trapping world of Ms. Jackson's youth is fading. Kids in Good Hope these days are like kids anywhere, listening to iPod nanos and thinking about what they want to do when they grow up.
The debate in a classroom at Chief T'Selehye School is lively and varied. Matthew Pierrot, 16, is the mayor's son and believes jobs will follow the pipeline.
"If the pipeline goes through, this will become a working town," the Grade 10 student says.
Sixteen-year-old Lyndon Kakfwi, in Grade 10, is blunt in his opposition: "I hate the pipeline. It'll ruin [the land]. It sucks."
Grade 12 student Joel Lafferty, 17, sees it both ways. "In some ways, yes, for the economy and stuff. In some ways, no, for the environment. That's what everyone's concerned about."
After natural gas was discovered in the early 1970s, a pipeline proposal quickly followed. Good Hope was the site of the galvanizing moment of the public review three decades ago, when then-chief Frank T'Seleie gave an impassioned speech in which he declared a pipeline would mean "that we are destroyed to make someone else rich."
At the legislative assembly in Yellowknife, the member for the Sahtu stands back from the details of the today's debate and sees a greater historical significance when looking from the seventies to the present.
"We didn't have that type of authority or legitimacy to negotiate," MLA Norman Yakeleya says in his office.
"It's good today, in the sense that the oil companies now have to deal with us. Before, they didn't have to. It was a real wake-up call for them to sit across from aboriginal leaders. . . . We can hire a lawyer, just like them."
In tomorrow's ROB
Dave Ebner travels to Inuvik, where the pipeline hearings begin and hears optimism that development is the answer over government dependence and poverty.