Q&A: Vuntut Gwitchin councillor on U.S. approach to ANWR

The CBC's Tara McCarthy speaks to Vuntut Gwitchin councillor Dana Tizya-Tramm about his government's ongoing opposition to the American government's plans for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

'We're lucky to have ethics, morality, logic on our side, as well as scientific data,' says Tizya-Tramm

Dana Tizya-Tramm is a Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation councillor. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

Yukon's Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation is speaking out about American government plans for Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). 

ANWR is home to the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd, a traditional food source for the Gwich'in.

A U.S. tax reform bill that passed in December included a provision to allow for drilling lease sales in parts of the refuge. Now the First Nation says the Trump administration and Alaskan officials are rushing the sale of oil leases in ANWR's coastal plain. 

The CBC's Tara McCarthy spoke with Vuntut Gwitchin councillor Dana Tizya-Tramm. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

TM: How should the Americans be handling this situation in ANWR?

DTT: That's a pretty interesting question, especially these days. We don't see a lot of support from the Alaskan or even the federal side. I think at this point, a large degree of this lands on Alaskans in general, especially as a lot of democratic processes are being circumvented in a legal manner, but still expedited. And you see a lot of First Nation voices falling by the wayside as the collateral damage of this. So I think there's a lot of different opportunities for the people to be holding their leadership accountable. Because right now we seem to be dealing with a political runaway train.

This July 2001 file photo shows the coastal plain of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Al Grillo/The Associated Press)

What kind of consultation have you received from officials in the U.S.?

Not much at all. In fact, there has been a strong presence of Gwich'in, from across our nation, which stretches from Alaska to N.W.T. [in Washington]. There's been some very contentious coverage, as well, you have some of the representatives from Alaska like congressman Don Young coming out and saying the Gwich'in have been dishonest. So it's been very interesting to see the public narrative being hijacked by a group of industry-hungry GOP representatives.   

You see a lot of First Nation voices falling by the wayside.- Dana Tizya-Tramm

Does this lack of consultation violate agreements about conservation of the Porcupine caribou herd?

Well, we're coming extremely close to that. There is a 1987 international agreement, where there is no provision in it for conflict resolution, but the intent and the spirit of the document are very, very clear on protection of the caribou and First Nation consultation. Now you have the Department of the Interior, just last week, in Alaska beginning this process, and they have only consulted with two communities, and they don't have any intentions of actually sitting down with the Gwich'in, which is quite incredible. 

There is a public comment period at the end of the month about oil leases in ANWR. What would you like to see people do?

There is a lot. The interesting thing about this is that they've gone in and set this up, and it's going to be a 60-day comment period. Now after this they're going to consider whether to undertake a full environmental impact statement.

I mean scientists are now saying that we've entered the sixth extinction age — the Anthropocene Era —as well as climate scientists giving warnings with a document signed by over 5,000 scientists that we need to be dealing with climate change yesterday, so you put this on top of it. 

It's a little bit frustrating to see these age-old arguments on the Alaska side unfold, and the population completely beat over the head with this, and then this put forward as a solution when there are so many alternatives. And you can ask any elder in Alaska or in the Yukon ... our rivers used to be filled with fish, there used to be so many more animals and this is slowly changing.

What are the next steps for your government?

We have to be doubling down on our efforts and casting a wide net. And really pulling on the threads that permeate through everybody in conservation. Now we're lucky to have ethics, morality, logic on our side, as well as scientific data. We have all of this moral high ground and this great position, but that and $3.00 gets you a coffee.

The real point of the matter is this: how is a small First Nation going to get traction internationally and really create a conversation?