Pipeline hopes to break patterns of the past

The Denali Pipeline company is hoping Doug Reti can change history. The Old Crow native is the gas pipeline's go-to guy when it comes to dealing with the several aboriginal communities that dot the pipeline's planned route through the southern Yukon.

WATSON LAKE

The Denali Pipeline company is hoping Doug Reti can change history.

The Old Crow native is the gas pipeline’s go-to guy when it comes to dealing with the several aboriginal communities that dot the pipeline’s planned route through the southern Yukon.

At least a decade away from production, the pipeline conjures up the old ghosts of rapid economic development – like the Klondike Gold Rush and the Alaska Highway – that shattered many aboriginal communities.

No consultation, no respect and no financial spinoffs, that’s the historical background Denali is working in.

And they’re hoping Reti can dispel it.

“So often, a nation’s expectations are raised only to find out that nothing happens at the end of the day and we don’t want to see that happen,” said Reti.

He’s also working amidst a mineral boom in the territory, where there are already some complaints mines are hiring Outside firms instead of local contractors.

But Reti is supposed to bring a deeper understanding of the impacts rapid economic development can have in a First Nation community.

Before his job in the energy business, he was an RCMP officer.

Near the end of his career, which began in 1984 when he joined the Old Crow detachment, he headed the Hobbema and Ermineskin detachments in central Alberta.

The region, centered around the 15,000-person town of Hobbema, is where four First Nations – the Ermineskin Cree Nation, the Samson Cree Nation, the Louis Bull Tribe and the Montana First Nation – intersect.

But despite the development of the oil and gas industry there, the communities have suffered heavily in the past from drugs, gangs and violence.

“There wasn’t a weekend that went by where we didn’t have a drive-by or a stabbing,” said Reti.

Hobbema gained national notoriety two years ago when toddler Asa Saddleback was shot and injured by a stray bullet while sitting in her kitchen.

Two teenagers were later arrested in relation to the incident. RCMP had long been aware the problem were young aboriginals being lured into the drug business by gangs. And willing youngsters were easy to come by in a town full of broken families, according to media reports from the time of Saddleback’s shooting.

While Reti was in Hobbema in the mid-2000s, he kick-started an aboriginal cadet corps to get youth involved in maintaining order in their community rather than destroying it.

The program, based on a similar project in Saskatchewan, started as marching in the school gym, but soon involved adventure-type outings and life-skill lessons.

“It gave them the same things as the gangs – a sense of pride, a sense of belonging – something they likely couldn’t find in their own lives in their own community,” said Reti.

The cadet corps went from 200 kids to 2,000 in just a few years.

“It really created a bridge between the police and the community,” he said.

While Reti was in charge of Hobbema, the Yukon’s current head cop, Superintendent Peter Clark, ran the Fort McMurray detachment.

Last week, at the unveiling of the Liard First Nation’s substance abuse plan, the two swapped stories about their experiences in crime-plagued rural towns.

“We shared a lot of the same approaches and stories,” said Reti.

“He’s aware of all the different impacts – both positive and negative – that development can have,” he said.

Reti sees the connection between Fort McMurray, Hobbema and the aboriginal communities in the Yukon.

“(Hobbema) went from poverty to prosperity in a very short period of time,” he said. “They didn’t know how to attend to it, socially, and they had very little control over the money that they received.

“That, of course, created some challenges.”

But the big question is how to prevent them.

One option is to develop local employment and hire local contractors.

“This will be one of the largest private North American energy projects in history,” said Denali spokesperson David McDowell.

“As such, it behooves everyone involved to begin thinking now about ensuring the required workforce is developed at the right time in the right way,” he said.

Denali held a procurement session after the job fair in Watson Lake with First Nation companies to explain Denali’s bidding process.

The aim was to give local contractors a heads up on what kind of people the pipeline will need.

“We don’t want them to see this pass them by,” said Reti. “First Nations have always asked for a meaningful place in this project. They’ve seen the Alaska Highway, they’ve seen the gold rush, where they weren’t meaningful participants, and they want to see this differently.”

That also involves education, and Denali will speak with communities early in their planning to ensure they get the right people near the pipeline rather than Outside, said Reti.

“Communities are not going to take advantage of this program if they’re struggling with issues like education,” said Reti.

“One of the reasons we’re out there really early is to better understand some of those issues.”

Communities like Watson Lake need to prepare and train people for the project, he said.

Local individuals and companies that can be involved in the planning, construction, operation and maintenance of the pipeline are in Denali’s interests too, said McDowell.

No one should assume it’s better for the company’s bottom-line to hire Outside.

“Having a trained, skilled, available local workforce is both more efficient and it also helps to lower costs,” he said. “There is an economic benefit to having a skills, qualified, competitive local workforce.”

But Denali has already been chided by the Liard First Nation for postponing consultation with the community.

“They seem to be talking to everyone in-depth except for us,” said Chief Liard McMillan last September.

The pipeline is currently holding an open-season period to gauge how much gas companies would be willing to pay to use the pipeline. That’s expected to carry on through the rest of 2010, said McDowell.

They’ve put off serious local consultation until open season concludes.

That hasn’t satisfied the Liard First Nation so far, and it will be a test whether Denali can turn around any hard feelings when they do feel like talking.

“We take the position the infringement on our aboriginal rights and title is happening immediately and during the open season,” said McMillan.

And Denali isn’t offering any more specific examples of how to prevent the ill effects of development until those talks with the community occur.

“It’s a difficult one to answer only because we haven’t sat down with every First Nation to discuss what the social impacts could possibly be,” he said.

“When we sit down with the community, and we do impact assessments and understand what the potential impacts might be, we can look at different strategies that we can employ to address those different things,” he said.

Contact James Munson at

jamesm@yukon-news.com.

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