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YK Dene retract support for Slave Geological Province highway

The Yellowknives Dene have withdrawn support for one of the NWT government’s most ambitious and costly projects after related contracts were not awarded to local companies, claiming the procurement process was flawed.

In a news release issued on Friday afternoon, the First Nation said it had been “deceived” by the territorial government and could “no longer remain silent as our territory slips further into decline.”

The First Nation’s concern relates to the Slave Geological Province highway, a road intended to run from Yellowknife to the Nunavut border – and eventually beyond, to the Arctic coast.

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Initial work planning the highway has been backed by around $30 million in federal funding but the road remains at this stage largely conceptual. The territorial government has identified the highway as one of its key infrastructure projects in the years ahead, arguing it will open up the area for mining and develop the economy.

The road, 413 km long, would cost an estimated $1.1 billion in total – money that would mostly have to come from Ottawa.

However, the Yellowknives Dene say even the federal cash provided so far has been inappropriately spent on retaining large, multi-national firms without local consultation.

In its news release, the First Nation said its chiefs had signed a memorandum of understanding with the NWT government – then led by Bob McLeod – in 2019 that it believed gave the Yellowknives Dene a seat at the table in deciding how the highway should be built from an environmental and social perspective.

Yet the Yellowknives Dene stated the NWT government had never signed that memorandum and subsequently issued requests for proposals related to the Slave Geological Province highway without consulting the First Nation.

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The First Nation says its support was used to acquire federal funding that was then routed to multi-national companies when its own business, Det’on Cho Environmental, could have done the same work with more concern for northerners’ priorities.

“While we recognize the qualifications of the two successful bidders, both multi-national firms, we also are aware that these companies were deemed to be most qualified through a lens that did not benefit from Yellowknives Dene First Nation input,” the news release stated.

“We are confident that if requirements were developed based upon input from the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, Det’on Cho Environmental (and their partners Hemmera and Dillon Consulting) would have demonstrated that they were best suited to advance this project.

“While we are frustrated that the GNWT’s procurement policies don’t provide any provisions supporting Indigenous procurement and that rules supporting northern businesses are outdated and inadequate, we are infuriated that the profits related to this work will flow outside of the NWT because the GNWT deceived us.”

Procurement concerns

The First Nation accused Premier Caroline Cochrane of promising to better work with Indigenous governments during her bid to lead the territory, but subsequently ignoring that pledge. The Yellowknives Dene said it felt the NWT under Cochrane had “regressed.”

“In light of the GNWT’s questionable approach to engagement and disregard for supporting northern business, we are withdrawing our support for the Slave Geological Corridor project,” the news release – issued to media by John Henderson, the Det’on Cho Corporation’s chief operating officer – concluded.

“Our support for major infrastructure projects will not be forthcoming until the current GNWT procurement policies are reviewed, and changes are enacted that ensure the GNWT is serious about supporting northern and Indigenous businesses.”

Procurement in the NWT has been a concern among Indigenous governments for some time.

Earlier this year, while being questioned by Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty, infrastructure minister Katrina Nokleby said: “I do recognize that if we don’t change the language in our contracts, we’re just going to keep letting people game the system, which is what’s happening.”

Revising how procurement works is listed as a priority in the mandate of Cochrane’s government, but that work is not scheduled to be complete until the fall of 2022.

Meanwhile, responsibility for procurement last week shifted from Nokleby to Caroline Wawzonek, the finance minister.

Speaking to Cabin Radio earlier in the week, Cochrane acknowledged aspects of procurement had been “a huge, contentious issue for many years” and having Wawzonek’s department take on the work made the most organizational sense.

Earlier this month, the Tłı̨chǫ Government demanded the cancellation of another tender – the Rae access road reconstruction project – over similar concerns about procurement.

Tłı̨chǫ Grand Chief George Mackenzie said the territorial government had shown “complete disrespect” by publicly tendering the access road contract without offering a direct negotiated contract with the Tłı̨chǫ.

“The tender provides for no Tłı̨chǫ employment and no Tłı̨chǫ subcontracting commitments,” read the Tłı̨chǫ Government statement. “It is flawed and ignores the pressing needs of our community to support itself.”

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