When the North’s first aboriginal MP moves south this fall, he’ll carry a cache of vivid memories and the knowledge his people face many of the same issues that challenged him when he was first elected 34 years ago.
A Whitehorse coffee shop provided the 71-year-old bachelor with the air-conditioned refuge he sought for an interview on a warm Tuesday morning.
However, air conditioning did little to cool Wally Firth’s ardour on an issue that has concerned him since the ’70s: the Mackenzie Valley pipeline project.
His political career began as the pipeline controversy was just starting.
In 1974, at the beginning of Firth’s second term as MP in his native NWT, Justice Thomas Berger began his famous inquiry.
Berger’s final report recommended a 10-year moratorium on pipeline development, to ensure land claim agreements were finalized.
The time was ripe for change.
Local aboriginal rights associations were organizing First Nation’s political power, and Firth carried that momentum to Ottawa.
“They learned a big lesson in politics. They realized that First Nations people in the North have a majority … and they used it when they voted for me.”
But the political strength that helped elect Firth more than three decades ago may be undermined if the pipeline project is resurrected.
The pipeline would bring an influx of southern workers to the NWT, said Firth.
“Overnight, the First Nation people will become the minority, and that’s not good.”
Many First Nations leaders don’t share Firth’s negative view of the pipeline, which is estimated to cost $7.5 billion and could run for 20 years.
They argue that most of the land claims are settled, and First Nations stand to profit from a piece of the pipeline pie.
The Aboriginal Pipeline Group hopes to have one-third ownership of the project, Fred Carmichael, its chair, said in a recent interview with the Globe and Mail.
The pipeline is a way for First Nations people to move away from dependence on government, he added.
Carmichael is overestimating the power of money, said Firth.
“He’s always been about making money. Once we make money, we’ll be happy. But money doesn’t buy happiness — a good life does.”
The project will do little to solve the social and health problems facing the territories’ indigenous peoples, said Firth, who remembers how the oil exploration boom in the ‘70s overwhelmed some aboriginals
Money poured in, but it flowed into a sea of drugs and alcohol.
Firth lost six relatives to suicide during that time.
Land claims have already provided First Nations with millions of dollars.
“You want more, but you haven’t done a helluva lot with what you have.”
What’s needed most is education and training, said Firth.
Firth understands the value of education, perhaps because he had precious little of it as a youth. He attended school for just a year and a half before being taken out with a suspected case of tuberculosis.
His formal education ended in his late teens, when he received his Grade 10 through correspondence.
However, his love of learning continued throughout his various careers as a Hudson Bay Company store manager, radio personality, politician, bush pilot and fiddler.
An avid reader, he continues to educate himself in his eighth decade.
Books, in fact, among the reasons he’s moving to Victoria.
“I love to read, and books cost so much money. I only live on a pension and I know Victoria has a good library.”
While Firth has qualms about how the public school system operates, he is happy to see a more First Nations people going to university or pursuing a trade.
He puts a lot of faith in the success and hope that education can bring to First Nations people.
A lot of faith was needed Tuesday evening, when Firth called to say that while he had been at the coffee shop, a 19-year-old relative, a young man without a trade, had committed suicide.
Keitha Clark is a freelance writer who lives in Whitehorse.