Pipeline fight may be brewing

Two Yukon First Nations are threatening to block the development of the proposed Alaska Highway pipeline if their demands aren't met. "We always prefer the negotiating table to the courtroom.

Two Yukon First Nations are threatening to block the development of the proposed Alaska Highway pipeline if their demands aren’t met.

“We always prefer the negotiating table to the courtroom. But, if it turns to that, we’ll go to the courts,” said Liard Macmillan, chief of the Liard First Nation.

The Liard and White River First Nations announced this week their plans to work together to reach a fair deal with pipeline proponents, rather than negotiate through the territorially funded aboriginal pipeline coalition.

“Our ideas weren’t being heard. We were always being overridden by the other First Nations and their concerns,” said White River Chief David Johnny.

Both Liard and White River have unsettled land claims. This put them at odds with the coalition’s other members, said Johnny.

“There’s a formula that says, ‘You’re a small band, you get the last say.’ We were totally left out,” he said.

The two First Nations remain with the pipeline coalition as observers.

The proposed pipeline would deliver oil from Alaska’s North Coast to the US Midwest along a route that cuts across the Yukon, beginning with White River’s territory surrounding Beaver Creek and ending at Liard’s territory surrounding Watson Lake.

There are two competing pipeline projects: one led by BP and ConocoPhillips, called Denali, and another led by TransCanada.

Earlier this month, TransCanada announced it had struck a deal with petrol-giant ExxonMobil to bring the gas to market through its $26-billion plan.

Both projects are proposing “open seasons,” during which they would seek out customers, in 2010.

Liard and White River want more than guaranteed jobs during the pipeline’s construction. They want to own a piece of the pipeline that would provide a steady source of money, said Macmillan.

“Jobs and those types of opportunities should be a given. What we’re trying to negotiate for is equity ownership and own-sourced revenue opportunities … so we can run our government, whether it’s to provide programs and services or build a school,” said Macmillan.

“That’s truly what we feel is accommodation,” he said.

This tough talk brings to mind the protracted attempts in the Northwest Territories to build the Mackenzie Valley pipeline, which has been repeatedly blocked by First Nations who sought a better deal.

But Macmillan and Johnny both reach for another comparison, likening the proposed pipeline to the construction of the Alaska Highway.

The highway’s completion in 1943 is celebrated as an engineering success by the US military, but no First Nation was ever consulted during the project. And the highway changed the lives of all Yukoners, including First Nations, forever.

The two chiefs want to ensure Yukon’s next mega-project is built differently, in close collaboration with First Nations.

“We’re demanding a community-based and transparent process, one that protects the rights and interests of our citizens,” said Macmillan.

“We own this land. Canada needs to understand there’s no agreements between ourselves or anybody,” said Johnny.

“Let’s get to the table and start talking.”

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.