Big money in small towns

Megaprojects mean megamoney, and in small northern economies that can mean megatemptation. Take Baffinland's Mary River mining project in Nunavut, for example.

Megaprojects mean megamoney, and in small northern economies that can mean megatemptation.

Take Baffinland’s Mary River mining project in Nunavut, for example. It’s estimated to cost $4 billion to build, and you can imagine the kind of ripples a $4-billion pebble makes in the small pond that is Baffin Island’s economy.

Almost anything Baffinland does makes waves. Its community relations people give laptops to successful high school graduates in the region. Since 2007, Baffinland has handed out more than 250 laptops. It’s a nice gesture to recognize success in high school, but even if they were all MacBook Pros with 150-inch Retina displays, it is still just 0.01 per cent of the project budget.

Baffinland also likes to get to know local decision makers and “key influencers,” as they say in the lobbying business. And what better way than to treat them to a trip to the Olympics in London?

CBC Radio recently reported that Okalik Eegeesiak, president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, accepted an all-expenses-paid trip by Baffinland’s owners. The QIA is still in the process of negotiating a final impact and benefit agreement with Baffinland.

So, what do you think? A cozy junket or, as Eegeesiak told the press, an opportunity to lobby Baffinland’s owners for “even a better deal” for the QIA’s members? Since Eegeesiak didn’t wear an Internet helmet camera for folks back home to watch her activities in London, we’ll have to take her word for it.

I feel sorry for the poor Baffinland vice-president of community relations who authorized the visit. I hope he or she wasn’t punished after inadvertently unleashing Baffin Island’s lobbying wolves on his hapless senior executive team in the luxury boxes at the Olympics. The scheme might not only have ruined a nice night at the European Handball bronze medal game, or wherever they were, but also cost the company millions in extra impact- and benefit-agreement commitments.

Speaking of video cameras, do you remember the infamous VECO case in Alaska? After receiving allegations of shady dealings in the Alaska State House, the FBI installed cameras in Westmark Baranof Hotel in Juneau (suite 604 in case you’re visiting next spring break). According to the subsequent indictments reported in the authoritative Chugiak-Eagle River Star, the Speaker of the House asked for and received payoffs totalling US$8,993 and a job offer for helping some industry-friendly tax changes through the legislature in 2006.

Raids took place at a half-dozen other politicians’ offices, followed by lots of salacious details. One Alaskan newspaper reported that VECO-led renovations to one politician’s house were so extensive that it doubled in size.

The Yukon itself is no stranger to corruption allegations. The New York Times even covered some of our scandals back in the day. Its edition of October 8, 1898 reported that “The Government has decided to remove Gold Commissioner Fawcett, in the Yukon district, and a successor will be appointed at once. Other prominent officers also will have to go. This is the result of the charges of official corruption in the Yukon country.”

The colonial editor of the Times of London, Flora Shaw, visited Dawson City and reported the following: “To put the position as plainly as it is daily and hourly related on the mining fields and in the streets of Dawson, there is a widely prevalent conviction not only that the laws are bad, but that the officers through which they are administered are corrupt. It is impossible to talk for five minutes … without some allusion occurring on the subject.” Allegations touched on every aspect of government, from claim registration to timber permits to mail delivery.

For the Yukon today, all of this is a reminder that our elected representatives and senior officials at all levels of government – federal, territorial, First Nation, municipal – have some big decisions to make as the Yukon’s various resource projects move through the regulatory process. Boozy dinners, shiny new pickups, cabin renovations and Olympic junkets are just rounding errors on billion-dollar projects.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” as US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said. Some of our governments should think about updating their lobbying regulations and conflict-of-interest rules, if they even have them. The Yukon government, for example, has conflict of interest legislation but no lobbyist registration or (despite years of talking about it) whistleblower legislation.

In the meantime, citizens will have to remain engaged and let leaders like Eegeesiak know what they think, both at the ballot box and between elections.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.