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The Mackenzie River as it nears the Arctic Ocean. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

He could still see that big wad of bills …

Floyd Roland was 10 years old when his older brother went off to work in the oil fields as a welder in the early seventies. Periodically, John Roland would return to the family home in Inuvik with his pockets stuffed with cash, so many bills you could almost hear the “pop” as he pulled the money out to show his younger siblings.

To a young Inuvialuit boy whose family was still largely living off the land and the great Mackenzie River – hunting caribou in winter, harvesting belugas at the mouth of the river in summer – the lure was impossible to resist: Floyd Roland was determined to fill his own pockets.

Great change was coming to the Mackenzie watershed – a sprawling and vast area of mountains, valleys, water and river delta making up one-fifth of Canada’s land mass – and it wasn’t just the Roland family dreaming about what the future might bring to those living along the roof of the North American continent.

As far back as 1958, then prime minister John Diefenbaker had introduced his “Northern Vision” – a “New Canada, a Canada of the North!” that would include millions of dollars for new roads to open up the north to exploration for oil and gas and minerals.

The year Floyd Roland was born, 1961, author Hugh MacLennan predicted that “In the year 2061, there will be at least three million people living in the Mackenzie Valley. There will be hospitals, schools, and at least two universities established on sites overlooking this cold, clean river.”

Three million people – and pockets filled with cash.

Floyd Roland went off to become an auto mechanic during the first great Mackenzie Valley pipeline debate of the 1970s, when Mr. Justice Thomas Berger was commissioned by the federal government to conduct hearings on the matter throughout the affected area.

Four decades ago, it was the elders who spoke up against the pipeline, leaders like former Fort Good Hope chief Frank T’Seleie, who vowed he would lay down his life if necessary so that the unborn “can know the freedom of this land.”

Justice Berger listened and, aware that the energy minister of the day claimed Canada contained enough oil to last 923 years and gas for 329 years, decided there was no need to hurry.

“If a pipeline were built now in the Mackenzie Valley,” Justice Berger reported in 1977, “its economic benefits would be limited, its social impact devastating.” He recommended a 10-year moratorium to give ample time for the settlement of various land claims.

So much for the anticipated boom. The town of Inuvik’s population fell by 500 within a year. Today, the population along the Mackenzie River is about 10,000.

Or, put another way, still some 2,990,000 short of Hugh MacLennan’s prediction.

Barges are shown on the Mackenzie River near Norman Wells, NWT. (Northern Transportation Company Limited )

‘River of Disappointment’

Floyd Roland, still believing a pipeline would come one day, began to show interest in politics during the early 1980s settlement of the Inuvialuit land claim. In 1995, the Inuvik auto mechanic won a seat in the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories in Yellowknife. He rose to become minister of finance, then premier for four years until 2011. He served as mayor of Inuvik until last year, when he resigned to run in the federal election as the Conservative candidate for the territories, a seat long held by the New Democratic Party but taken this time by the Liberals.

Mr. Roland was finance minister when they held the last round of pipeline hearings in 2006. This time, however, a great many elders were in favour of development and it seemed a certainty that the Mackenzie Gas Project would meet approval. The National Energy Board’s joint review panel pushed for numerous environmental conditions – with such forces as World Wildlife Fund Canada on side – and in late 2010, the NEB approved the $16.2-billion project that would see a 1,196-kilometre Arctic pipeline for natural gas built between the Beaufort Sea and northern Alberta.

The NEB put 264 conditions in place but argued if they were met, Canada’s North would prosper. The pipeline, which would also tap into on-shore fields, could carry enough natural gas each day to heat four million homes.

The resource consortium, led by Calgary’s Imperial Oil Ltd., included three other giant energy companies, as well as the Aboriginal Pipeline Group. It would be the largest private undertaking in Canadian history.

Mr. Roland said at the time, “We could be the next Alberta – maybe even bigger.” It was a familiar refrain up and down the Mackenzie River.

Something happened, though. The price of natural gas peaked, then retreated. New fields were found around the world, including the United States. With natural gas futures running at less than half the price they were in 2007, the year Mr. Roland became premier, interest began to lag.

Mr. Roland is now corporate relations manager for Northwind Industries Ltd., an Inuvik company working on the $229-million, 138-kilometre highway that will finally join Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk. But he recalls that when he was in office and would attend meetings with the consortium, they would tell him “This project is ‘skinny’” – meaning the margin of profit had thinned to a point where they no longer thought it worthwhile.

The pipeline, once approved to be under way by 2015, has yet to start and projected costs have now risen to $21.2-billion. In June of this year, the NEB approved a six-year extension, given the consortium until the end of 2022 to begin construction.

But will it ever happen?

“When I was an MLA,” Mr. Roland said, “I’d come home and everyone would say ‘What’s the latest?’ on the pipeline. Now people don’t even want to talk about it.

“And those who do talk are saying ‘Not in my lifetime.’”

Ambitious plans that sink along the Mackenzie River have a long tradition. Back in 1798, Alexander Mackenzie came down the river the Dene called Deh Cho (“Mighty River”) in a small flotilla of birchbark canoes. Natives had warned the young, curly-haired Scot about the dangers of the river and the monsters to be found farther north, but he pressed on, insisting that such a huge river could only lead to the fabled Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean.

When the river turned north at the Camsell Range, however, he knew he was wrong. The river was headed for the Arctic Ocean, not the Pacific.

Though historians quibble over whether he actually used the phrase, Alexander Mackenzie has gone down in history for calling the waterway that now bears his name the “River of Disappointment.”

For people like Floyd Roland, who live along the Mackenzie and love it as their home, a more appropriate tag line might be the “River of Frustration.”

But never the “River of No Hope.”

Float planes docked alongside the Mackenzie River in Fort Simpson, NWT, Canada. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Canada’s ‘Cold Amazon’

“This river belongs

wholly to itself

obeying its own laws …

A river so Canadian

it turns its back

on America.”

F.R. Scott, Mackenzie River


The size of the Mackenzie is nothing short of intimidating. At the riverside park in Fort Simpson, a village 500 kilometres west of Yellowknife, village elders often go to sit on a bench and stare out at the wide river that has been called the “Cold Amazon” by Robert Sandford, the Canadian Epcor chair for water and climate security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. It is not only their magnitude that Mr. Sandford finds comparable, but the profound effect each watershed has on the surrounding regional and even global climate.

Some of that water sliding by Fort Simpson so calmly comes from as far away as the Columbia Icefield glacier in the Alberta Rockies, some has come from British Columbia and the Yukon and has crashed through the wild rapids of the Liard River’s own Grand Canyon, and much has come from Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories, the deepest body of water in all of North America.

The Mackenzie River, including its two great upstream supply lines, the Peace and Athabasca rivers, travels 4,241 kilometres before it reaches the Beaufort Sea. Its watershed spans three western provinces and two territories, covering approximately 1.8 million square kilometres, the largest by far in all of Canada and triple the size of France.

The watershed’s variety is nothing short of jaw-dropping: mountains, canyons, river spans as wide as four kilometres in places, long rapids through limestone cliffs, and endless acres of black spruce all leading to a river delta so circuitous and complex, it looks like a maze when seen from above, before finally reaching the ocean.

There are 68 First Nations living in the watershed, as well as numerous communities that were once territorial trading posts: Fort Providence, Fort Simpson, Wrigley, Fort Norman, Norman Wells, Fort Good Hope, Arctic Red River, Fort McPherson, Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk.

Jamie Bastedo, a naturalist who has lived more than 30 years in Yellowknife, was commissioned by the Trans Canada Trail to produce an official guide to the Northwest Territories portion of the trail, which was published in 2010.

“Rivers are the traditional trails up here,” Mr. Bastedo says, “whether liquid or frozen. The Mackenzie was the 401 of the northwest country, with all the exit lanes heading out onto the tundra.”

In writing about the river “bend by bend,” Mr. Bastedo discovered the rich history of the Mackenzie, from the remnants of old paddlewheelers to abandoned huts at Axe Point, which served as the staging area and distribution centre for the U.S. military while constructing the Canol pipeline between Norman Wells, NWT, and Alaska during the Second World War.

“It’s just a treasure trove of stories,” Mr. Bastedo said. “You can’t look at the Mackenzie without thinking of the people who have been here.”

Long before any European ventured into the north, the Mackenzie Valley was rich in the First Nations cultures of the Dehcho, the Sahtu and the Gwich’in, as well as the Inuvialuit of the wide northern delta.

Alexander Mackenzie took note of a strange yellow seepage as he paddled past where Norman Wells is today but had no sense then that this meant oil.

Natural resources would shape the modern history of the area, from the gold rush years at the end of the 19th century to the discovery of oil and natural gas fields both on and off shore, to Rio Tinto’s Diavik mine 220 kilometres from the Arctic Circle, where each minute of the day, a new diamond is found.

In 1930, they found uranium deposits at Port Radium, NWT, eventually leading to what Hugh MacLennan called “the most important mine in the world” – the top-secret facility that produced the essential materials required for the production of the atomic bomb.

Many in the area, however, are justifiably wary of development. Port Radium eventually became known as “the village of widows,” so many of the men died after working in the mines.

A decade ago, I visited the village of Dettah, on the shores of Great Slave Lake, where the water had long ago been poisoned by the arsenic used in gold extraction at a nearby mine. Even today, Dettah’s water must be trucked in from Yellowknife.

The Gordon Foundation, a private philanthropic organization out of Toronto, has invested $27-million in northern community initiatives over the past quarter-century, with particular attention being paid to water quality. More than 20 communities in the Mackenzie Valley now monitor their own water treatment systems and share data on Mackenziedatastream.ca, which the foundation launched a year ago.

As well, bilateral agreements between the territories and the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia are designed to protect the watershed in the future.

“It’s almost like people have reframed the way they talk about sustaining their communities,” said Carolyn DuBois of the foundation.

“They’re really very positive about the future.”

The MV Louis Cardinal ferry arrives to unload and pick up vehicles driving the Dempster Highway and who need to cross the Mackenzie River at Tsiigehtchic, NWT. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

‘A real economy’

Floyd Roland went to Stanton’s, a grocery store in Inuvik, earlier this summer to pick up milk and found the shelf bare. The Peel River ferry was unable to run because of high water conditions, meaning trucks were no longer able to get through from the Dempster Highway.

The lack of fresh milk did not last long, but it was a sharp reminder of how fickle transportation remains along the Mackenzie Valley. The new highway north to Tuktoyaktuk from Inuvik will help and is expected to be completed in 2017. Nearly four years ago, the $200-million Deh Cho Bridge across the Mackenzie River at Fort Providence was opened. And there remains a commitment to twin the river with a highway that would serve all the communities.

Until that happens, however, the people of the Mackenzie are still reliant on ferries, barges, trucking, ice roads in the winter and, for some communities, air transport during spring breakup and early freeze.

Many believe the long-promised highway that would follow the river and directly connect the northern communities with the southern would only be completed if oil and natural gas came online. But the building of the pipeline now seems increasingly remote. When Jean-Luc Pepin was federal minister of Industry, Trade and Commerce during the early days of the Berger Inquiry, he argued against any notion of a moratorium on the pipeline: “It would be crazy to sit on it. In maybe 25 or 50 years, we’ll be heating ourselves from rays of the sun and then we’ll kick ourselves for not capitalizing on what we had when gas and oil was a current commodity.”

Some in the north are doing just that, convinced that with world prices on the wane, supply opening up and public opinion about fossil fuels increasingly influenced by research on global warming, it will now never come to pass.

“My attitude when mayor was ‘Better to have a hope than to shut it down 100 per cent,’” Mr. Roland said.

There is indeed optimism about the future prospects of those who live along the Mackenzie, despite the problems that go beyond the fading pipeline dream. Inuvik’s local natural gas well is “watered out,” meaning the town is now trucking in propane from Alberta and mixing it with air to produce what Mr. Roland calls “synthetic natural gas.” Diesel fuel is also being trucked in from British Columbia.

The situation began when Mr. Roland was still mayor. “It was like me phoning up a company in Alberta and saying, ‘Ship me ice,” he says. “It just made no sense.”

There is also growing concern with the financial health of Northern Transportation Co. Ltd., an Edmonton-based company that provides shipping services, mainly by barges, to communities and exploration camps throughout the territory. Its operational headquarters at Hay River and terminals at Norman Wells, Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk also make NTCL a major regional employer. Inuvialuit Regional Corp. is a sizable investor in the company.

The company has been concerned for some time about return on investment, citing low water conditions and the drying up of oil and gas exploration. NTCL says it hasn’t turned a profit in a decade and recently obtained court protection from its creditors while restructuring.

The seemingly endless supply concerns have had the effect, Mr. Roland said, of turning “the non-talk of building a pipeline” into positive talk about alternatives, from greenhouses to solar and wind power. Inuvik has also connected with Decentralized Energy Canada, a Calgary-based not-for-profit company that works with communities on energy efficiencies. Decentralized energy is considered to be any energy produced and managed at the point of consumption, the aim being to reach a sustainable future for communities where energy is affordable, efficient and reliable.

“There’s always going to be those who say ‘We’re dying up here because of the cost of energy,’ and there’s some truth to that,” Mr. Roland says. “But at the same time, there’s opportunities. With challenges comes opportunities. And if we manage to pull this together, you create a true economy, not just a government economy.

“A newer, greener energy and a real economy.”

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