Review of Dokis, Where the Rivers Meet

View over Mackenzie Delta from Cessna 172 - En route from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk - Northwest Territories - Canada

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Carly A. Dokis. Where the Rivers Meet: Pipelines, Participatory Management, and Aboriginal-State Relations in the Northwest Territories. (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015), 207 pgs, ISBN 978-0-7748-2845-1.

Reviewed by Cyrus M. Hester, Arizona State University

In 2004, rising fuel prices reignited a long dormant plan to connect arctic natural gas reserves with Alberta pipelines serving southern markets. From this, the Mackenzie Valley Project was born—a plan to build a new 1,220km pipeline across four Aboriginal land claim areas and hundreds of water bodies in the Northwest Territories. In Where the Rivers Meet, Dokis takes us into the communities along the proposed route with the goal of providing “a space for Dene voices and experiences.” This meeting of values, beliefs, and practices plays out in public hearings, boardroom meetings, at dining room tables, and most importantly on the land. Throughout the journey, Dokis renders a clear and compelling description of the various means by which indigenous participation in the decision-making process is constrained, misinterpreted, and generally undermined by the Western epistemologies of Imperial Oil and the Crown.

Dokis investigates four key themes: the institutional production of hearing spaces, the comparative epistemologies of place, the political geography of land rights, and the legal nuances of consultation. Readers with experience in the Aboriginal-State relations of North America are likely to find all too familiar patterns here. For instance, when attempting to incorporate traditional ecological knowledge into decision-making, technocratic predilections toward managerial and cartographic forms of information end up reducing spiritual and experiential narratives into taxonomic lists. In so doing, Dokis contends, the process undercuts the moral imperatives of respect and reciprocity that form the bedrock of local socio-ecological relations. On a similar matter, territorial and judicial models of organization transform places—from community halls to ancestral lands—into spaces of contest. Fluid identities and relations are now compelled to take on static and exclusive terms. These ostensibly disempowering changes to local social structures are only exacerbated when proponent-led fact finding results in project assessments laden with jargon, lawyerly tones, and similar “word tricks” (45). The resulting information asymmetries combine with Aboriginal rights that are limited to discussing the trajectory of local development, not deciding it, to severely limit Dene engagement. Taken in concert, one can understand how Dokis concludes that the current governance model only serves to aggravate existing power disparities between development advocates and local communities.

The solution, Dokis suggests, must come from appropriate and respectful consideration of Dene perspectives and lifeways. Similar to the approach of Justice Thomas Berger’s inquiry during the 1970s, decision-makers must move away from the “lens of management” and meet Dene where they live: on trap lines, over a quiet cup of coffee, or in the accompaniment of drum songs (89). They must begin perceiving and communicating environmental impacts in the Sahtu as a “moral sickness” in conflict with Dene universal law (85). Moreover, governments must move beyond consultation to a “genuine and appropriate consideration of the needs, rights, and visions of Aboriginal people” (150). Sahtu communities should not only have the right to free and informed consent, but to determine their own futures.

On each topic, Dokis deftly integrates concepts drawn from the scholarly literature on governance, political geography, and indigenous studies with her direct experiences in the Sahtu region. What results is a rigorous ethnographic text built upon clearly disciplined participant observation and document analysis. As a case study on Aboriginal-State relations, it is a solid contribution to the fields of domestic governance and environmental justice. However, readers searching for rich historical narrative, as may be expected for The Otter’s audience, will likely find the temporal depth to be intermittent and overall rather limited. To be sure, some historical context helps situate the legal precedence of land claims or sets up a contrast between the current administrative processes with the praise-worthy Berger Inquiry. But, the long-term dynamics and contingencies of extraction, industrialization, and Crown involvement in the Sahtu are not developed here. Readers interested in how the industrialization of the subarctic has both incorporated and excluded Indigenous peoples over time, while transforming local economies and environments, will find richer historical narratives elsewhere.[1] This is a story about a specific pipeline proposal, albeit an important one, and local communities’ responses to that project.

It should also be said that, as Dokis intended, Dene voices and concepts take center stage. Rich quotations from community members and elders accompany local stories, teachings, and personal experiences on the land. Yet, Dokis does not overly romanticize the lives of her hosts. Nor does she evade the inherent tensions felt by rural communities seeking to balance local economic opportunities with their traditional lifeways. “Increasingly in the Sahtu,” she writes, “anyone who wishes to hunt and trap must also participate in the cash economy” (123). Yet, a “billion dollars cannot create a moose” (88). Articulating these tensions respectfully and artfully, often in the very words of community members, deserves commendation in its own right.

The proponents of the project, however, are far less developed and indeed at times practically amorphous. While critical of the process, Dokis faults inexperience and structural sources of power. She is even so generous as to assert that corporate and Crown representatives unintentionally exclude local knowledge. Case-in-point, knowledge exclusion is attributed here to “disparate views of the landscape and long-standing beliefs about appropriate human engagement with it” (88). This may well be the case, but the reader is offered little direct evidence with which to make his or her own judgement. Statutes vary in their specificity, and subjective interpretations by decision-makers can have a significant effect on the factual and procedural aspects of a decision. Likewise, project proponents (e.g., Imperial Oil) have a clear incentive to frame environmental impacts as negligible or mitigable. After all, when a proponent-led assessment determines that “project effects on air, water, land, fish, or wildlife will not last a long time or affect a large area,” it has met the legal basis to proceed (78). This does not mean that any party in this case acted untoward. Only by shining a comparable light onto non-Dene actors can the structural and agent-derived elements of power be dissected and questioned.

On a personal note, when I was leaving the employ of the Bad River Anishinaabeg to pursue a graduate degree, my Tribal Chair confided in me that science often felt like Tolkein’s “Eye of Sauron” burning the magic off anything it looked upon. I reflect often upon those words. In Where the Rivers Meet, I do not believe Dokis has stripped the magic from the local communities living along the proposed route of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline. Rather, she has illuminated an indigenous community’s beliefs, values, and experiences which have been all too often shrouded beneath the narrative of industrial progress. Whether the text would have benefited from turning a critical eye to history or upon non-Dene actors is difficult to say. It may have only distracted readers from the importance of a morally-grounded and place-based epistemology for making decisions in the Anthropocene. This book represents a significant contribution to our understanding of barriers to procedural justice in Aboriginal communities, and it offers important lessons for regulators, policy makers, and rights advocates well beyond the Northwest Territories. Senior undergraduate or graduate students interested in anthropology, indigenous studies, or political ecology will find the work accessible and very relevant to the contemporary history of development on aboriginal lands.

[1] See, for example: Piper, Liza. The industrial transformation of subarctic Canada. (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009).

Cyrus M. Hester is a PhD student in Sustainability at Arizona State University. Prior to his graduate studies, he was employed by the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa as an environmental specialist, where he was often called upon to review mining projects, pipeline operations, and related matters associated with industry and the environment.

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