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What the Gateway commission could learn from an oil sands pioneer Add to ...

A miracle of cross-cultural cartography

For a two-by-three-foot sheet of brown kraft paper sketched lightly in pencil, Kakkuk's map is an oddly gripping artifact. It's too faint to reproduce well, but anyone can visit the library and see it. Drawn out of scale and proportion, with its bloopy lakes and tendril rivers and Tyrrell's tiny but always legible writing marking rapid after rapid, the map looks more like a child's drawing of a cow's digestive system than it does an escape route from death.

It's hard to fathom how they worked it out. Ahyout was a talented mimic, but neither he nor Tyrrell spoke the other's language, and they shared no cultural reference points. Yet somehow, together, surrounded by their mutual need and the terrain they were trying to map, by translating the specific physical experiences of the route ahead into marks on a piece of paper, the strangers fashioned a mutual understanding.

Maybe, if they are intimate enough, the Gateway hearings will accomplish the same thing. Maybe the native communities along the route will decide the oil-sand sluiceway is in their interests. Maybe Enbridge, the pipeline builder, will decide to end it at a less environmentally delicate terminus, such as Prince Rupert.

Is two years really too long to study how we should use the land we share, when that land is the primary practical heritage we'll leave to the future? In the 1970s, Mr. Justice Thomas Berger conducted three years of hearings on the potential economic and environmental impact of the proposed Beaufort Sea pipeline. That pipeline was cancelled, and Judge Berger's report became a virtual charter of rights for both the environmental movement and Canada's first nations.

Joseph Tyrrell was a capitalist at least as much he was an environmentalist. After he left the Geological Survey in 1898 – when his salary was still only $850 a year – he moved his wife and three children to the Klondike and set up shop as a gold-mining engineer.

Seven years later, he returned to Toronto and became president of the Northern Canadian Mining Corp. He opened up the Kirkland Lake gold play, made his fortune and bought a massive commercial apple orchard that eventually became the grounds of the Toronto Zoo.

Tyrrell wrote about all of it in his unpublished autobiography, a neat, handwritten copy of which is also available for anyone to read at the Fisher library. But none of it is as moving as his accounts of the long days in the Barren Lands, watching his new Inuit friends hunt caribou from kayaks.

Tyrrell couldn't figure out how they did it at first, because they threw their spears without breaking the rhythm of their paddling. Finally, he asked Ahyout why it was that the hunter who killed the animal never got the meat. Ahyout replied that it wasn't the Inuit way: The reward went to the man who spotted the game, not the man who bagged it.

They way they saw it, that was the easy part.

Ian Brown is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.

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