Opinion
Paul Sanborn
Steven Kakfwi

Northern Values Mean Protecting the Land First

As we face a lull in resource development, it's time to work together and get land management right as nation-to-nation partners, says a former premier of the NWT.

On EDGE | Opinion

The phrase “Water is Life” is commonplace in the Northwest Territories. It is still the Indigenous way of thinking and how we relate to each other and our place in the universe. The words can be heard spoken around dinner tables, in community halls and even echoing off the walls of the Legislative Assembly.

This week, NWT residents once again reaffirmed the importance of those words. A poll released Monday by Ducks Unlimited Canada confirms the vast majority of people in the territory place the health of water high above other pressing matters like resource extraction and want to see their regulatory system strengthened, not streamlined.

A simplistic reading of the poll results might suggest that NWT residents are opposed to industrial development. This is not the case. Rather, most Northerners reject the notion that economic development should require the weakening of environmental protections. They give the clear mandate that jobs and prosperity must not come at the cost of land, water and wildlife, voicing environmental concerns as second only to cost of living.

It is no secret that the territory is facing a downturn in resource activity. Let us capitalize on this lull to set the stage for future development, to ensure it is done right and reflects the wishes of Northerners.

We must take this time to build up our communities’ strengths in environmental protection and monitoring, creating jobs for our people on the land. The work that is currently underway to establish a training program for Indigenous Boreal Guardians to manage our protected areas in the NWT is a key example of economic opportunities that can emerge from conservation.

This is our opportunity to conduct a proper assessment of hydraulic fracturing, to look to other jurisdictions for answers and to include the public in the review process.

Let us ensure that the negotiations of outstanding Indigenous rights are completed along with land use planning during the life of the 18th Assembly, as two thirds of NWT residents are demanding. This will both secure a positive future for Indigenous governments and create certainty for investors.

The territorial government has already taken many actions to ensure our land and water is protected for all time. Important policies like the NWT Water Strategy, the bilateral water agreements being negotiated with our neighbours, and the Protected Areas Strategy show a firm commitment to conservation and the protection of our lifesource. With 63 percent of residents asking for at least half of NWT lands and waters to be protected, this work must continue.

Recently elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and more importantly, to deal with Aboriginal governments on a “nation-to-nation” basis.

For many years, the chiefs of the Dene Nation refused to have a relationship with what was formerly the Territorial Council. In 1978, a motion was made to have Dene representatives put their names forward to be elected as territorial representatives, forever changing the way forward for the Government of the Northwest Territories.

We have come a long way in starting to build a nation-to-nation relationship. This work must continue. Our new MLAs must reflect on and honour that history as they seek ways to work with our Inuvialuit, Metis and Dene governments to develop a collective vision and pave the road for the 18th Assembly that prioritizes land use planning and protection.