Residents call on community leadership for more engagement on Mackenzie Valley Highway project

·4 min read
A department of Infrastructure truck, parked a lookout on the existing portion of the Mackenzie Valley Highway.  (John Last/CBC - image credit)
A department of Infrastructure truck, parked a lookout on the existing portion of the Mackenzie Valley Highway. (John Last/CBC - image credit)

Some people living along the proposed route for the Mackenzie Valley Highway project are calling on their representatives to better engage community members.

Following a series of virtual engagement sessions between the territorial government and the public earlier this month, one member of the Pedzéh Kı̨ First Nation in Wrigley, N.W.T., said "it seems like we're losing touch on true democracy."

Wesley Pellissey said that the community's chief is trying to shut the project down when community members are in favour of seeing the highway get built.

"Shouldn't this decision come from the people?" he said.

The Mackenzie Valley Highway is a $700-million project to build a 321 kilometre road connecting Wrigley to Norman Wells.

Pellissey said the highway would create work opportunities, build capacity for training and "hopefully in the future, economic self-sufficiency."

He took to Facebook earlier this month to bring attention to the virtual engagement sessions and encourage residents to speak up.

John Last/CBC
John Last/CBC

"People have to add their input and speak up, or the money will be allocated to another project and MVH [Mackenzie Valley Highway] will be put on the back burner," he wrote.

"The acting chief of Wrigley has been trying to stop it since he was acclaimed as chief, your voices need to be heard. Whether you want it or not, your voices need to be heard, it's your choice not the choice of one man. Please speak up."

As of April 26, the post received 54 comments and 72 shares with people weighing in on the highway project, many of whom had not heard about the engagement sessions before seeing Pellissey's post.

'Has to be public opinion'

"It just seems like the way democracy and politics are working now is that it's just the council and the chief that make all the decisions without notifying the band members," Pellissey told CBC News.

He pointed to a comment from Stanley Sanguez, interim Chief of the Dehcho First Nation, which indicated links for the public sessions had been sent to each First Nation Office in the Dehcho and Sahtu regions.

"The First Nation offices have an obligation to send it out to all band members on those lists and let them know what's going on," Pellissey said.

Seth Bohnet, Director of Strategic Infrastructure with the territorial government, said the sessions were advertised with posters in each community, social media ads as well as radio ads through CKLB.

The CBC made multiple requests, via the band office in Wrigley, over the course of a week to speak to the chief, but did not receive a response.

Gabe Hardisty, an Elder in Wrigley, also said he's heard the chief opposes the project but that the decision "has to be the public opinion."

Concerns about enviromental and social impacts

Twyla Adele, 32, is from Tulita, another community that would be connected by the highway.

She's cautious about the environmental and social implications of the road's construction, but agrees that a higher level of engagement is needed.

Though Adele said she was away from the community for school, given how long the project has been in the works, "for being a member of the band and being a member of this region, I have not once had one of our leaders come up to me and ask me, what are my thoughts."

Joanne Stassen/CBC
Joanne Stassen/CBC

"If you're working for the people, then you should be talking to the people," she said, "but none of us knows what's happening around here."

Should be making 'important decisions' together

Adele attended the last of the government engagement sessions after learning about them from Pellissey's Facebook post.

Adele said she was one of the only young people involved and hopes to see more youth engaged in dialogue about the community's future.

Adele acknowledged high costs of living in the Sahtu and economic opportunities that would come with the highway's construction. However, "there's a lot to consider," she said and hopes to see more collaboration between residents and leadership as the project continues in the coming years.

"We should be making these important decisions and we should be talking to our Elders as well as working along with everyone else within the community. And it's kind of hard where our leaders do not work with anyone that resides within the community."

CBC made several attempts to reach the chief in Tulita, but requests for an interview were not returned by press time.

Highway still years away

Bohnet said information gathered from the virtual engagement sessions will be a part of the department's "developer assessment report."

The report, which also includes information on "environmental and engineering perspectives" is expected to be complete by fall, and submitted to a review board, which has up to two years to assess the report.

The review board then provides a separate report to the minister of Lands who will determine next steps for the Mackenzie Valley Highway project.

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