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Handley tells aboriginals to choose

Economic independence goes hand-in-hand with self-government, minister says

Jorge Barrera
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Oct 08/01) - Aboriginal groups must choose between relying on the government or going at it alone, says the territories' minister of economic development.

That's the reality of the matter, said Joe Handley, minister of economic development for the territory. He's dangling a massive $26 billion hydro project for six rivers in the territory which could create millions of dollars in revenue.

"The reality aboriginal governments will have to face is that if they want self government what is going to be their source of revenue?" said Handley.

Economic independence goes hand in hand with self government, he said.

"They can't be dependent on Ottawa for a welfare check," said Handley.

But the big money isn't swaying some critics.

They charge Handley's hydro projects could flood communities, destroy traditional gathering areas and disrupt the ecology.

Some raised the spectre of the James Bay hydro development in Quebec which flooded 15,000 sq. km of land and proved to be an ecological disaster.

Handley said the projects in the North will be nothing like that, but the numbers seem to point at major development on par with James Bay.

According to territorial projections, the Mackenzie River could produce up to 10,500 megawatts of power.

The province of Ontario produces 24,000 megawatts across the board.

Handley proposes run of the river technology, which uses the river's current to generate power. There is less pooling in run of the river developments.

The Pic River First Nation created a lucrative hydro industry using run of the river technology.

Byron Leclair, economic development officer with the band, said his community doesn't even come close to generating the type of power proposed for the North.

"How you'd get 10,000 megawatts using run of the river, I don't know," said Leclair.

The Pic River First Nation, about three-and-a-half hours east of Thunder Bay on the north shore of Lake Superior, is currently developing a third hydro project.

They've completed two projects which generate a combined $17 million in revenue a year. But their voltage output hovers in the lower double digits.

The developments caused some minor ecological disruptions. Leclair said he still hunts and traps near the developments.

The scope of projects in the territories scares some people -- though Handley said he's just presenting potential.

"As a private person, I don't think it's not worth it," said Winter Lennie, chair of the Sahtu renewable resources board based out of Tulita.

"This is the last frontier and we're going to risk destroying significant wildlife habitat, to sell power to someone else?" said Lennie.

Handley admits developments will have an environmental impact.

"Let's not try to fool ourselves into believing a hydro project will have no impact," said Handley. "There is a trade-off."

He said each individual region has to decide what is acceptable.

According to some aboriginal environmental groups the trade-offs are always too high

"People are the casualties in these developments," said Susan Hare, spokesperson with the First Nations Environmental Network.

"When you hurt some, you hurt all."