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Bumpy ride for Tlicho road
North Slave Metis Alliance says road threatens caribou

Kassina Ryder
Northern News Services
Monday, August 8, 2016

The president of the North Slave Metis Alliance (NSMA) says the Tlicho all season road threatens the only caribou herd they can still hunt.

"We're going to have year-round access to this particular herd. That really causes us concern because now the North Slave Metis people are going to have their only bush meat supply cut off," Bill Enge said.

The proposed roadway would provide a year-round connection between Whati and Highway 3.

Enge said it would also provide year-round access to the Bluenose East caribou herd. There is currently a ban on harvesting Bathurst caribou to the east and Enge said the NSMA is concerned the road will put additional stress on the Bluenose East herd.

"If the Bluenose East caribou herd population declines similar to that of the Bathurst caribou herd, then the Government of the Northwest Territories will have no choice but to put a 100 per cent harvesting ban on the Bluenose East herd, just like they've done with the Bathurst caribou herd," he said. "That's a serious concern to us."

There were between 35,000 and 40,000 Bluenose East caribou in 2015, according to population estimates from the Department of Environment. The herd had 68,000 animals in 2013.

There is a ban on commercial and resident hunting, but a limited aboriginal harvest is still allowed.

"That's a highway straight to the Bluenose East herd," Enge said. "It's quite likely, when the road goes through, the maximum amount of harvesting of the Bluenose East herd will occur and it will put additional strains on the herd."

Predators will also have better access to caribou, he added.

"We're also going to have increased predation on the herd because now the wolves and the bears can use the road as a highway to get right to the herd that is right now too difficult to get to, except for the winter road."

Enge said while the NSMA is not opposed to development, the group is not being properly consulted about the project.

"I am saying that the Government of the Northwest Territories, acting as the Crown in this context, has a duty to consult and, if need be, accommodate the North Slave Metis people no differently than the First Nations like the Tlicho are being consulted and accommodated respecting the Tlicho all season road project," he said. "That is inherently wrong because it's treating two aboriginal peoples that have the same rights differently."

Enge said a strength of claim assessment should be undertaken to determine the the impact the road will have on the NSMA's aboriginal rights.

News/North asked DOT for comment regarding the NSMA's claims that they were not properly consulted about the Tlicho all-season road project and the department emailed a response.

"We have filed our consultation record and it is on the board's public registry," wrote spokesperson Ioana Spiridonica.

In the meantime, the NSMA has requested the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board to perform an environmental assessment on the project.

"We have no choice but to ensure our aboriginal rights are respected and we're going to bring our concerns through the environmental assessment because they sure weren't being heard through a so-called consultation with the Department of Transportation," Enge said.

The Yellowknives Dene First Nation also had concerns, said Alan Ehrlich, the board's environmental impact assessment manager.

"The North Slave Metis Alliance and the Yellowknives Dene First Nation identified a number of concerns that they thought needed to be considered further," he said.

One of the board's first steps is to visit Whati on Aug. 18 to get input from residents. The board will also host a meeting in Yellowknife on Aug. 24, which Enge said he will be attending.

The assessment will not only look at impact on caribou and wildlife, but the impact on communities as well, Ehrlich said.

quoteReady for a permanent roadquote

"One of the socio-economic and cultural impacts the Tlicho identified in its work on this proposal was a concern about changes in access to drugs and alcohol," he said. "The Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act defines impact on the environment in a broad way that includes impacts on people, so things that affect the well-being of people will be considered as part of this environmental assessment."

Whati Chief Alfonz Nitsiza says he believes his community is ready for a permanent road.

"We are preparing ourselves if the road comes in," he said. "We still have work to do but we are not going to be caught off-guard."

The 94-kilometre road is expected to take about four years to construct, according to the DOT. It isn't known exactly when work could start.

Nitsiza said the road will have an immediate economic benefit to Whati. Residents have already begun training for possible jobs to construct the road.

"It's all preparation for the jobs that may be available," Nitsiza said.

Once finished, the road would bring down the cost of living and provide a more reliable route in and out of the community, Nitsiza said.

Whati is currently on the Tlicho winter road system, which is becoming unpredictable as winter temperatures warm.

"Right now we have to rely on ice road," Nitsiza said. "In the last few years, the road has been opening later and closing earlier, so that interrupts our winter road resupplies of fuel and goods for the stores."

It cost nearly $5,000 to construct one kilometre of the Tlicho winter road system in 2014 compared to $1,050 per kilometre in 2004, according to the DOT's Tlicho all-season road project description report.

The road is open an average for 77 days a year.

But in addition to its benefits, residents are also concerned about what else the road might bring into the community, particularly drugs and alcohol.

Nitsiza said the community has been preparing mitigation measures, such as having two permanent drug and alcohol counsellors in Whati.

He said he believes the advantages of the road will balance the costs.

"A lot of work has been done, I think overall the benefit is there," he said. "Certainly it would mean jobs for people and maybe potential businesses. Overall I think the benefits outweigh the impact."

The road is estimated to cost about $150 million, said Michael Conway, DOT regional superintendent for the North Slave Region.

The government has applied for funding through the federal P3 Canada Fund.

It's not yet known how much the project would be eligible to receive through the fund or when funding would be announced, Conway said.

"We're working closely with P3 Canada and we're optimistic," he said.

The Mackenzie Valley Environmental Review Board has 16 months to complete its assessment, but Ehrlich said he believes it will be finished before deadline.

"The board is legally required to be timely in its duties and it will run an efficient environmental assessment," he said. "I expect it will take less than the 16 months it's allowed to take."

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