“Our culture is the land. Take that away, we go away,” said Jonas Antoine. He is referring to the Dene First Nations of Canada’s Northwest Territories.
The people in Denendeh are part of a larger family of Aboriginal cultures known as the Athapaskan people, including those in Alaska who refer to themselves as Den’a (“the people”), and the Navajo and Apache, who live in the American Southwest. The Dene made its way across a large amount of land in the north that spanned from the Alaska coast through the Yukon territory and beyond the Mackenzie Delta region in the Arctic Circle, nearly reaching the Hudson Bay in the east.
Many Athapaskan-speaking people, like Antoine, living in Canada’s Northwest Territories are known as “Dene,” which means “people” in their language. They refer to their homeland as Denendeh, which translates to the “Land of the People.” This land covers 1,000,000 square kilometers of Canada that consists of mountains, lakes, rivers, and forest.
In the summer of 1969, the federal government proposed a policy that would dissolve the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and direct the responsibility to the provinces and two territories, which would, in effect, cancel the government’s constitutional duty to Canada’s First Nations. By October of that year, sixteen chiefs congregated to form the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories to protect the rights and interest of the Dene. One of the first matters of business when the Indian Brotherhood was formed was to stop the building of a proposed pipeline through the Mackenzie Valley to carry natural gas to southern Canadian and U.S. markets.
The project was scrapped until 2004, when a new proposal for the pipeline suggested transporting gas through the sensitive arctic tundra.
Looking out onto the Mackenzie River valley is a sublime experience, revealing the beautiful curvature of nature, but not one sign of human habitation. It is undeniably precious. But for others, it’s a hot commodity.
The Mackenzie watershed hides about 166 billion barrels of gas and oil, making it the third largest energy reserve in the world.
Near Antoine in the north, Canada has barely tapped that reservoir, except for a small 40-year-old pipeline that runs through a part of the valley. Five years ago, that pipeline was leaking. Enbridge, the company that owns the pipeline, at first tried to downplay the damage by telling the residents of Wrigley that only four barrels of oil had leaked, but later admitted that 1,500 barrels had spilled.
“They brought in black spruce from outside,” said Antoine. “Why? Because the paid consultants told them to. But why not let it reseed, with our own trees?” This small leak reveals to Antoine an admonition of what’s to come with the Mackenzie Gas Project, the $20 billion drilling, hydrofracking, and piping plan that has been in and out of the works for decades.
In June, the National Energy Board of Canada approved an extension of construction permits first granted back in 2011. The project’s alliance of companies — Imperial Oil, Shell, ExxonMobil, and ConocoPhillips — were given until December of 2022 to build the pipeline.
“This extension will allow time to assess whether changes in the North American natural gas market . . . will result in improved economics for development of Mackenzie Delta gas reserves,” a spokesperson for Imperial Oil said. “The project participants remain hopeful that they can assist in the development of Canada’s significant northern gas resources.”
And as the pipeline project comes to a story that never ends, tribal members remain divided on the issue. Ever since Berger recommended a ten-year moratorium on pipeline construction in the Mackenzie Valley, and the First Nations resolved their land claims with the federal government, tribes have been sitting on an incomprehensible amount of oil and gas. In 2000, the Aboriginal Pipeline Group was formed, claiming a one-third stake in the Mackenzie Gas Project, allowing for the Dene, Gwitch’in, and Inuvialuit to receive a portion of profits.
But while the Aboriginal Pipeline Group continues to pressure its oil company partners to progress the project, the Gwitch’in Tribal Council continues to protest. In fact, earlier this year, they voted to ban hyrdrofracking in their region of the Northwest Territories.
And then there is Antoine. As for many who oppose the project, it is a constant, looming concern that has spanned decades, taken over peaceful conversations, torn apart communities. Antoine urges that there must be consultation as more and more time passes without a decision being made. “Real consultation. Consultation today is they come tell you what they done to you.” He wants a seat at the table in order to keep the pipeline away from hunting and fishing ground in order to protect water and the land. “Consultation, consent, and compensation,” Antoine proposed.
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