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A delicate balance

Public regulatory hearings begin today to examine the impact of the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline on the environment and people of the Northwest Territories, and prime mover Imperial Oil isn't even sure the $7.5-billion effort is worth it. DAVE EBNER reports

Globe and Mail Update

INUVIK, NWT — The birthplace on Joe Handley's birth certificate testifies to his connection with the land. Born in the bush, the document forgoes the name of a precise place for a more general co-ordinate: "Sec. 3, Tp. 59, Rge. 18, W. 3, Saskatchewan."

Mr. Handley, now Premier of the Northwest Territories, is still connected with wild, untouched land, living on a lake about 30 kilometres outside of Yellowknife. But he wants his territory of about 43,000 residents to step into the future as well, sharing in the benefits of industrial development while taking care to preserve the gorgeous and varied landscape of the North.

It is striking that delicate balance in this delicate place that is a central theme of public hearings that begin today in Inuvik, on the Mackenzie Delta in the Northwest Territories. A series of 137 regulatory meetings in small towns and even tinier outposts will consider the proposed $7.5-billion Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline.

"Even if people don't make their living off the land any more, people still remain close to the land," Mr. Handley says. "There are things that are more important than money. But you can't have it all one way or all the other way. There has to be a balance. . . . As great as the jobs and opportunities are, it's sure nice to sit on a river bank and see a real river flowing by and not have to worry about noise or pollution. Getting that balance is a big challenge for us."

The people of this territory look at northern Alberta, many repulsed by the gigantic strip mine that is the Fort McMurray oil sands.

They look at smog-choked Toronto.

They worry.

This cold, remote place is changing. Arctic activists fight to tell the world that the polar ice is melting, irrevocably affecting the region. Caribou, a onetime staple on dinner tables, is no longer served in Inuvik restaurants as the herds dwindle.

The temperature in Inuvik wavers somewhere lower than -30 C. Nellie Cournoyea, the chief power broker of this town, sits in a boardroom of Inuvialuit Regional Corp., a major pipeline supporter that connects roughly 140 local firms.

The Inuvialuit, one of four first nations groups along the pipeline route, were the first to settle a land claim, in 1984, and that deal protects the delicate environment alongside promoting development, insists Ms. Cournoyea, the corporation's CEO. "If provisos of the claim are respected, there will be a balance," she says. Environmental issues "don't take a secondary role. They're equally important."

While the economy here -- beyond government money -- is extremely weak, the Inuvialuit have had successes, making a profit of about $20-million in 2004 on revenue of more than $160-million. Among their partners is Calgary-based Akita Drilling Ltd., the company working on the Devon well, the first offshore venture in the Beaufort Sea in 17 years.

According to various estimates, there is enough gas in the Delta and the Beaufort Sea to rival proved current reserves in the rest of Canada.

Such potential ripples down the winding Mackenzie River valley.

David Hodgson -- owner of a contracting business in Norman Wells in the central valley -- feels the rumbles of industrialization. Working on his shop floor surrounded by heavy equipment, his hands are greasy, he's wearing a baseball cap and smoking a cigarette. It is -35 C outside.

He's a successful businessman. The North is where he was born; like most residents, the open, empty spaces resonate in his heart.

"It's got to be done right," the 43-year-old says. "Once that pipe comes, it won't stop."

It can be done right, says Judi Falsnes, who owns Arctic Chalet Ltd. just outside Inuvik with her husband Olav. They offer accommodations in individual cabins, often hosting workers in the oil and gas business, and provide dogsled tours through the woods and over nearby lakes, keeping a kennel of 25 rambunctious and barking Colville Lake huskies. The dogs are beautiful animals, with remarkable pale blue eyes and irresistibly cuddly, furry white like the vast stretches of snow all around this place.

Last May, the Falsneses visited Alaska, to see what the oil pipeline through that state -- built in the 1970s -- brought to the land and people. They came away reassured that a line down the Mackenzie won't ruin their territory.

"I know oil and gas can bring negatives," Ms. Falsnes says. "But if people make wise choices, it can be beneficial."

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