North

N.W.T. gov't disrespecting Tłı̨chǫ Agreement with road construction contract, say Tłı̨chǫ leaders

Tłı̨chǫ government leaders say putting out a tender for the Rae Access Road reconstruction project could block Tłı̨chǫ citizens from limited job opportunities. The minister responsible says the government had to because the project has funding from Ottawa.

Road is getting federal money, so rules require N.W.T. to put project out for tender: minister

Tłı̨chǫ Grand Chief George Mackenzie at the 2019 Tlicho annual gathering in Gameti, N.W.T. Mackenzie says the Tłı̨chǫ government wanted the territorial government to enter into a negotiated contract with a Tłı̨chǫ firm. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Tłı̨chǫ government leaders say a decision by the Northwest Territories government to publicly tender a contract for construction work on Tłı̨chǫ land is disrespectful to the Tłı̨chǫ self-government and land claim agreement — and they're demanding the territory cancel it. 

The Tłı̨chǫ Chiefs Executive Council says the competitive contracting process for the Rae Access Road reconstruction project could block Tłı̨chǫ citizens from limited job opportunities close to home. 

Tłı̨chǫ Grand Chief George Mackenzie said the Tłı̨chǫ government met with Premier Caroline Cochrane a number of times to discuss the Rae Access Road into Behchoko, N.W.T. He said the Tłı̨chǫ ​​​​government wanted the territorial government to enter into a negotiated contract with Tlicho Engineering & Environmental, a Tłı̨chǫ firm, but that the territory went with a competitive contracting process instead.

The territorial government may negotiate a contract outside the competitive process if it believes the deal will provide special benefits to northern businesses and residents, create jobs and build capacity. 

Mackenzie said the territory's decision not to go this route means the road reconstruction contract could go to an outside company, and there are no guarantees that company will hire or train Tłı̨chǫ people.

Infrastructure Minister Katrina Nokleby said in an emailed statement that the Rae Access Road project is getting federal money, and federal funding rules require the territory to put the project out to tender.  (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

'This is our road'

"This is the only road that goes to Behchoko. This is our road. The premier still chose not to work with us and refused to negotiate a contract with the Tłı̨chǫ company," said Mackenzie.

"Our Tłı̨chǫ Agreement has commitments from GNWT (government of the Northwest Territories) to help people become self-sufficient, but the actions of the GNWT are working against us.

While this is an unfortunate situation that's happened, I think we'll take lessons from it. ​​​​- Katrina Nokleby, infrastructure minister

"The GNWT has failed to uphold its treaty commitments."

Mackenzie said the public tender for work on its land is yet another example of the territorial government "systematically discriminating against" Tłı̨chǫ people by denying them capacity-building opportunities — thus widening the gap between Tłı̨chǫ communities and the rest of Canada. 

4 bids on project

The N.W.T. Infrastructure Department posted a request for the "reconstruction of Rae Access Road" on the government's procurement website. The site states that the event closed on June 18 and that bids are being reviewed.

The department described the project as reconstructing the road from kilometres 0 to 9.74, with a quarry site at Kilometre 5. It said the business incentive policy, which gives preference to N.W.T. businesses, applies to the request for tenders.

There are four bids listed. From highest to lowest bid price: 

  • NWT Construction Ltd. with $5,904,300.50, based in Yellowknife.

  • Tlicho Engineering & Environmental with $3,498,996.20, based in Behchoko.

  • CJ Contracting Ltd. with $3,469,767.30, based in Yellowknife.

  • RTL-Robinson Enterprises Ltd. with $3,417,784.10, with addresses in Yellowknife, Enterprise and Edmonton.

Tlicho Engineering & Environmental is owned by the Tłı̨chǫ Investment Corporation, which is in turn owned by the Tłı̨chǫ Government. 

Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty, who represents Behchoko, said he too finds it disrespectful that the territorial government went with a competitive contracting process. He said outside companies don't routinely hire local people.

"We've seen so many contract contractors that came in — no local hires, no local employment opportunities or business opportunities, so we've missed out on many of those already," he said

"Obviously we need to prevent that from happening, but here we are again. It's frustrating dealing with the cabinet of the day."

A file photo near Behchoko. The department described the Rae Access Road project as reconstructing the road from kilometres 0 to 9.74, with a quarry site at Kilometre 5. (Walter Strong/CBc)

Federal rules require tender

Infrastructure Minister Katrina Nokleby said in an emailed statement that the Rae Access Road project is getting federal money, and federal funding rules require the territory to put the project out to tender. 

"While this means the project will not necessarily be awarded to a Tłı̨chǫ business, the GNWT will still work to ensure that local labour and subcontractors are used on the project, to maximize economic benefits to Tłı̨chǫ citizens," she wrote. 

"We have also agreed to follow up with [the Tłı̨chǫ government] to ensure there is a shared understanding of how we are implementing provisions of the Tłı̨chǫ Agreement regarding procurement."

On CBC's Northbeat Monday night, Nokleby said pulling the tender now could result in "legal ramifications" for the territorial government. 

Meanwhile, said Nokelby, the road is "very unsafe" and her department says the work needs to get done now. 

The GNWT has failed to uphold its treaty commitments.- Tlicho Grand Chief George Mackenzie

"So while this is an unfortunate situation that's happened, I think we'll take lessons from it," she said. 

Lafferty hopes the tender debacle doesn't repeat itself with the Frank Channel Bridge replacement — a major upcoming infrastructure project near Behchoko.

"It's a bigger project we want to get ready for," he said. "If we're being challenged with the Rae Access Road, how's it going to look for the Frank Channel Bridge? We're missing out on opportunities."

Mackenzie said his government is prepared to take "drastic action if we need to," on the Rae Access Road contract, though declined to say whether that means taking the territorial government to court. 

"The dream is someday we'll be self-sufficient, and we will manage most of our companies but we need that capacity building," said Mackenzie. "That's what it's all about." 

With files from Priscilla Hwang and Alex Brockman

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