Slave Geological Province Corridor to go ahead after First Nation leaders pull brakes over summer

The government of the Northwest Territories and the Yellowknives Dene First Nation have agreed to move forward with a project that would see a corridor through the Slave Geological Province.

'Economically, the Northwest Territories is at a critical juncture,' says Chief Edward Sangris

Yellowknives Dene Ndilo Chief Ernest Betsina said in statement that he looks forward to working with the territory once again. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

The government of the Northwest Territories and the Yellowknives Dene First Nation have "reset" their relationship and have agreed to move forward with the $1.1-billion Slave Geological Province Corridor project.

The project in part would see a 413-kilometre, two-lane, all-season road built between mineral-rich areas northeast of Yellowknife and western Nunavut.

The idea is to create new economic opportunities that benefit both territories. The road would connect Nunavut to Canada's highway system and link up to a potential deep-water port on the Arctic Ocean.

Earlier this summer, Dettah Chief Edward Sangris said the Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN) was pulling the plug on its support and cited concerns about "antiquated methods of procurement and Indigenous engagement."

YKDFN said in a news release that it hoped there would be more priority given to "capacity building, benefits for Northern and Indigenous business, local hiring, and community engagement." 

In an interview with CBC, Sangris said the decision-making processes are "outdated" and therefore do not reflect the needs and interests of Northern people.

Chief Edward Sangris said in a joint news release with the territory that the N.W.T. is at a 'critical juncture.' (Richard Gleeson/CBC)

He also said they do not acknowledge the value that local knowledge can add to projects which involve natural resource extraction, especially when it comes to environmental impact assessments. 

The best people to work and to study the environment "are the people who depend on the land," he said, because "most environmental concerns are actually being addressed at every stage of development."

He says Northern firms, such as the Indigenous-operated Det'on Cho Corporation, have expertise that extends beyond economic value, and that expertise could more accurately reflect the needs and interests of all Northern peoples. 

'More work to be done'

The groups have now agreed to work together once again to move the project forward, according to a joint news release issued on Wednesday.

The release says after a meeting on Sept. 25, all parties agreed that "strong relationships" between the territory, Indigenous governments and other organizations are necessary for major infrastructure projects.

Sangris and Yellowknives Dene Chief Ernest Betsina were at the meeting, along with Premier Caroline Cochrane, Minister of Infrastructure Diane Archie and Minister of Finance Caroline Wawzonek.

However, "there's more work to be done," said Sangris. The relationship between the territorial government and YKDFN will take some redefining, he said. 

"The government always talks about reconciliation [but] in order for reconciliation to work, you have to understand, you know, the culture, the tradition, the spirituality of the people," Sangris said. 

Wednesday's news release says projects like the Slave Geological Province Corridor are "critical" for the territory's COVID-19 recovery.

It also says road access will help the mining industry by "enhancing the feasibility of expanding the Taltson hydro system."

The Slave Geological Province is located in a region in the eastern Northwest Territories where three diamond mines are located. (CBC)

"Economically, the Northwest Territories is at a critical juncture," Sangris said in a statement.

"Indigenous, territorial, federal and municipal governments must work together to move projects forward that will stimulate the economy, create employment, attract investment and ensure a bright future for all Northerners while respecting Indigenous traditions, culture, Treaty rights and title."

Betsina says the First Nation looks forward to working with the government on the projects.

In a statement, Cochrane said partnerships between Indigenous governments and organizations are important for projects such as the Slave Geological Province Corridor. Such projects help expand and diversify the economy, she said.

"I am pleased to report the success of this meeting and look forward to many more in the future," she said.

With files from Hannah Paulson