Sahtu Hot-Button: The F Word

MLA candidates in the Sahtu are focusing their energy on issues that unite the region rather than forcing voters to pick sides when it comes to the often polarizing issue of oil and gas development.

The construction of a highway into the Central Mackenzie tops the list of priorities for all four candidates, followed closely by concerns around the high cost of living and varying ideas on how to improve community wellness by curbing addiction, unemployment and a lack of education in the isolated communities of Norman Wells, Tulita, Deline, Colville Lake and Fort Good Hope.

Each candidate says opening the region up with permanent road access from Wrigley to Norman Wells will decrease shipping costs and lower the high price of food and fuel in the region, while at the same time creating more economic opportunities for residents in the form of tourism and resource extraction.

For and against it

But when it comes to the question of oil and gas development, and specifically the hot-button question of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) — often the first question asked by voters — candidates have been reluctant to take a hardline position.

“For me, I’m for fracking and I’m against fracking; it’s 50/50 for me,” said candidate Judi Tutcho, who ran in the previous election against former MLA Norman Yakeleya. After three terms, Yakeleya announced last month he would be sitting out this election due to health reasons.

Tutcho, former NWT Languages Commissioner and resident of Norman Wells, said people need more information and a strong environmental monitoring system to participate and believe in before coming around on the issue of fracking.

“If we had a really, really excellent monitoring mechanism for fracking that assessed what was being done and technical people monitoring very well, that could be in place very early on, the community would be really well educated and informed about how this is going to go in,” she said.

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Candidate Paul Andrew of Tulita, a former CBC broadcaster and recent chair of the Minister’s Forum on Addictions and Community Wellness, agrees that people need more — and better — information from the territorial government before proceeding with fracking, including a full public review and more consultations with communities.

“The government has failed miserably in its responsibilities,” he said. “It has to ensure people are in the position to make informed decisions… They have the legal obligation to consult and provide good, factual information. There’s lots of fears about this issue and we need a conversation that helps people rather than divides them.”

For Yvonne Doolittle, the issue is a bit more cut and dry. The Sahtu rep on the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board said oil and gas activity should be accepted as an inevitability for the region for the next 20 to 30 years, though other economic opportunities need to be phased in.

“I’m pro-responsible development,” she said. “We have to support resource development, because that’s pretty much our bread and butter in the territory, and has been since the 1900s in this region when Imperial came in and started developing the oil.”

When it comes to fracking, she said people need to look beyond the negative incidents in other jurisdictions where lax regulation has led to impacts on the land and water, and to become involved in opportunities for monitoring work in the region to ensure the land will be protected during future development.

“I’m fully aware of how the regulatory regime works in the Northwest Territories and how good they are at doing their job to ensure industry’s applications and plans protect the people, how they protect the land, how they safely allow responsible development,” she said.

“We need to make sure that people understand these things, and we’re in a period of quiet right now in the region, so it’s the perfect time to…talk about the future potential for resource development in this region and industry coming here. Because we need to attract them. The whole of Canada and Northwest Territories is all resource-based right now, so we need to work with them.”

Danny McNeely, a contractor and former president of the Fort Good Hope Metis local, did not respond to interview requests, but letters sent by him to the Sahtu Land and Water Board express a strong support for oil and gas development in the region.

“Industry contributes to our region’s economy in a very large way that could be seen as positive,” he wrote in 2013 during the review of ConocoPhillips’ water licence application. “Fracking has occurred in the Sahtu Region with no impacts but success… Land/environmental management conditions to minimize adverse impacts continue to minimize adverse impacts to all stakeholders.”

All four candidates are now busy travelling door-to-door through the region speaking with constituents. Here’s a breakdown of their stated top priorities.

Paul Andrew

• Completion of Mackenzie Valley Highway;

• Land-based healing opportunities and possible addictions treatment centre in the Sahtu;

• Conversion to biomass to address high fuel costs;

• Energy conservation and renewables;

• Training young people for positions that will result from community self-government agreements;

• Review of consensus government system to assess its effectiveness;

• Language promotion.

Yvonne Doolittle

• Completion of Mackenzie Valley Highway;

• Responsible mining, oil and gas development;

• Support for entrepreneurs and small businesses;

• More basic level employment training in communities;

• Economic diversification;

• Housing;

• High cost of living;

• Support for Elders.

Danny McNeely

• Completion of Mackenzie Valley Highway;

• Regional decision-making rather than superboard;

• Support for local businesses;

• Housing;

• Elders and seniors home care;

• High cost of living;

• Regional tech/trades centre.

Judi Tutcho

• Completion of Mackenzie Valley Highway;

• Addressing low literacy rates, education shortfalls;

• Economic self-sufficiency through local energy production, like biomass;

• High cost of living;

• Support for Elders;

• Support for people with disabilities.

How to vote in the Sahtu:

Advance polls

November 16

Colville Lake – Colville Lake Band Office Chamber: 12p.m. – 4 p.m.

Deline – Deline Community Council Chambers: 12 p.m. – 6 p.m.

Fort Good Hope – Chief T’Selehye School Library: 12 p.m. – 6 p.m.

Tulita – Tulita Community Cultural Centre: 12 p.m. – 6 p.m.

November 11-14, 16-21

Norman Wells – Heritage Hotel: 10 a.m. – 1 p.m.; 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Election day – November 23

All communities: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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