This is part 3 in our series Pipeline politics
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Mike RobinsonBy the spring of 1984, it was time to seriously start developing the socio-economic plans for the Polar Gas pipeline’s construction, and it was clear that the Polar Gas team needed to grow on the ground.

As a result of strong and fair Sahtu Dene community criticism of the first draft of the proposed pipeline right-of-way, a new set of routing options was created by the company for Dene community review.

It was also time to start talking about pipeline construction jobs, and the reality of union employment with either the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, the International Union of Operating Engineers, the Labourers International Union of North America or the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

It was also necessary to make it clear that operations and maintenance of the line would involve only about 200 employees and not the several thousands of workers needed for construction. There was the matter of local Indigenous business involvement in as many aspects of construction and operations and maintenance as possible.

But perhaps most importantly, it was time to start finalizing the planning for the most contentious local social and environmental issues:

  • pipe off-loading and staging areas along the Mackenzie River;
  • gravel borrow areas near Fort Good Hope;
  • the siting of construction work camps on the pipeline spreads;
  • and, perhaps most of all, pipeline routes and associated facilities (like compressor stations) in close proximity to the Sahtu communities.

Given the vagaries of Treaty 11, signed in 1921, and the likelihood that Aboriginal title had not been fully ceded (if at all), a very high standard of Dene community buy-in to the Polar Gas pipeline construction and operations and maintenance plans would be required.

All of these plans and community involvement efforts would be thoroughly reviewed in the upcoming National Energy Board hearings required to earn a permission to build and operate the line, subject to the performance of specified terms and conditions.

To get the best understanding possible of the nature of Indigenous and treaty rights that might be at play, I (as Polar Gas’s manager of northern programs and community affairs) hired Elmer Ghostkeeper, an Albertan Metis politician born on the Paddle Prairie Metis Settlement.

As president of the Federation of Alberta Metis Settlement Associations (the only legally established Metis land base in Canada), Elmer had worked side-by-side with Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed in the 1981 negotiations between Canada and the United Kingdom to repatriate the Canadian Constitution, now known as the Constitution Act, 1982. Sections 35, 91 and 92 of the Constitution Act defined Aboriginal, federal and provincial power.

It was Elmer who suggested the word ‘existing’ be used in Section 35(1): “The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal people in Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.”

Lougheed and Ghostkeeper’s contribution to the repatriation process set the stage for requiring informed consent for development by those peoples who hold Aboriginal rights in Canada.

With Ghostkeeper’s Indigenous political and Constitutional expertise, and additionally supported by consulting pipeline engineer Ed Mirosh’s technical expertise, the Polar Gas team travelled north to convene scores of community meetings in 1984 and 1985.

We began developing comprehensive community-based socio-economic plans with each community on the right-of-way. Of this time, Elmer is quick to note that, “We certainly weren’t thrown out by any communities!”

Binders documenting all agreements were made, and all local programs were carefully developed to augment the more formulaic chapters prepared in the NEB hearing application materials. Step-by-step and community-by-community defined the process we followed.

And then, in December 1985, our world changed. At the Christmas party in Toronto, I was told that falling natural gas prices and rising construction costs had made the project economically unfeasible.

So our team had to convene one last community tour to explain what had happened and to shoulder the consequences. It was impossible to do this without knowing we had systematically raised expectations of future business opportunities and employment, only to have them dashed by market forces.

Nevertheless, we created a model of Indigenous involvement in mega-project development that we remain proud of. And it still has utility in fostering community economic development based on respect for Aboriginal title and informed consent.

Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike has chaired the national boards of Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.

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