Waking up Canadians
Group examines sustainable economy

Dane Gibson
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Feb 07/00) - A national organization that has the ear of the Prime Minister is studying the way business is being done in the North.

The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy has top officials from Canada's biggest mining companies, environmental organizations, and First Nations groups as its members.

The Round Table, an independent agency of the federal government, has been in existence since 1994. The group is just now focusing on the North with the goal of coming up with ways the non-renewable resource sector can conduct business more sustainably.

CEO David McGuinty said Round Table members are going to "wake Canadians up to the fact that the North is a huge part of Canada's future.

"We interviewed more than 100 top people and discovered Northern issues aren't even on Ottawa's radar screen," said McGuinty.

"We thought there was a real need to raise the profile of the North with the federal government and Canadians. It is Canada's North not no-man's land and there are significant economic opportunities there."

To start the process, the Round Table members asked decision makers from the federal government, aboriginal communities, major industry and environmental organizations to take an overall look at how Northern resources are being handled.

"The first thing they told us was that the challenge of the North was so big and so complex that everybody was afraid to tackle it," said McGuinty.

"They were mostly afraid because they didn't feel they could make a difference."

Common issues raised include the need to settle land claims in the region, the need to ensure development occurs at a pace both Northern people and the environment can withstand, and the need to modify the existing royalty and fiscal agreements with the federal government to ensure more non-renewable resource benefits stay in the North.

"Businesses are saying that the investment climate isn't as good as it might be. Local people are saying where are our jobs, and environmentalists are asking what impact is the explosion in the non-renewable resource sector having up there," said McGuinty.

The Round Table has set up a Northern taskforce consisting of aboriginal leaders, corporate managers, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development representatives, and environmentalists.

"The first stage for us is to get everyone to agree that business as usual isn't sustainable," said McGuinty.

The taskforce is conducting two case studies in the NWT. The lessons learned from those studies will be applied to non-renewable resource developments throughout Canada.

The first case study is on the natural gas and oil pipeline at Norman Wells. The second examines mining exploration and development within the 'Corridor of Hope,' which includes the BHP and proposed Diavik diamond mines 250 kilometres north of Yellowknife.

"Once you get everyone to agree that business as usual isn't acceptable, then you break the problem down into its constituent parts," said McGuinty.

"What we're doing is flushing out two things. The first is what are the risks of increased development on aboriginal communities and the second is to answer how all the players can minimize those risks."

He said one of the first things the taskforce noticed is that companies proposing a development don't follow a determined protocol when it comes to dealing with communities.

"We have situations in the North where one village joins with one multinational and a village 20 kilometres down the river joins with another," said McGuinty.

"The process as it is now seems to cause a lot of grief and costs a lot of trust. We can do better in this country."

The National Round Table taskforce plans to meet in March in Yellowknife. They expect 60 participants from the corporate, First Nation, and government sectors to attend.

"Money is like electricity because it takes the path of least resistance," said McGuinty.

"We're not opposed to development, we're just concerned about how it will happen."

McGuinty is hoping the NWT Taskforce will have a final report completed by the end of the year. It will contain specific regulatory and policy recommendations for DIAND and could result in the federal government implementing tax and market mechanisms to ensure Northern development is conducted sustainably.