The Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Project and the North as a National Ideal

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This post is part of #AltASEH2020, a special series published by NiCHE based on research and presentations that could not be presented at the 2020 annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To contribute your own work to this series, visit this link. And don’t forget to donate to the ASEH Conference Recovery Fund.

What happens in the North will be of great importance to the future of our Country. It will tell us what kind of people we are.[1]

— Thomas R. Berger

The increasing demand for resource development in northern Canada after World War II and the oil exploration in the Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in the last part of the 1960s transformed national perceptions around the meaning of the far North in the context of Canadian national identity and Canadian unity.

The proposed projects for a gas pipeline construction in the western Arctic region of Canada were submitted as part of a big energy corridor project development plan that aimed to use northern non-renewable resources to solve the energy crisis that emerged after the 1973 oil embargo. The United States’ pressure to use Canadian natural resources increased after the oil crisis and triggered the big energy projects in Canada. As a part of this energy development process, the American government insisted on a multinational corporation to construct a pipeline through the Mackenzie Delta. American investment in the gas project aimed to expand the northern energy corridor to the south to supply the American market. In the early 1970s, the Canadian federal government answered the American government’s demand eagerly. As Jean Chrétien, the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development asserted in 1971:

We in Canada would welcome the building of such a gas pipeline through our country and would do everything reasonable to facilitate this particular development… An oil pipeline would also be acceptable. In other words, if it is felt desirable to build an oil pipeline from Prudhoe Bay direct to the mid-continent market then right-of-way through Canada I am sure can, and will be made available.[2]

As part of this process, in 1974, Justice Thomas R. Berger was commissioned to investigate the potential social, economic, and environmental impacts of a pipeline in the Northwest Territories. After a three-year inquiry, Berger concluded that the federal government’s enthusiasm for the project was misplaced. He recommended a ten-year moratorium for the pipeline construction through the Mackenzie Valley in his final report, pointing out the devastating environmental effect a pipeline in the Yukon could pose.

Berger’s moratorium reignited a series of national debates over nature, resources, and sovereignty that persist in the Canadian popular discourse. The prevailing notion of Canadian national identity that inspired the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Project in the first place —as propounded by the settler nation-state’s political and banking elites— was of a country rich in resources waiting to be exploited. The Canadian North was a region whose potential was yet to be realized. Although the far north had traditionally been adopted as a national symbol reflecting the distinctiveness of a romanticized “Great White North” —replete with pristine nature and untouched wilderness— changing transnational economic dynamics meant that the north was shifting to become an important tool in representing an economically strong Canada. Development was the new order of the day.  The settler nation-state attempted to subdue the cultural, social, and political idea of the wild north: to tame it, and turn it into a material hub as a means of legitimizing its exploitation of the region’s rich natural resources.

The global idea of unavoidable economic development played an essential role in constructing the new meaning of the north after World War II. The idea framed the far north as a new energy landscape and its development began to be seen as inevitable. As a part of this idea, the environmental degradation of the northern landscape and the assimilation of Indigenous ways of life into the economically developed north were also perceived as unavoidable. According to a research report of the Environmental Protection Board on the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline, the adaptation of the Indigenous peoples to the change brought by the inevitable northern development would be certain.[3] The consultants of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline consortium argued that traditional Indigenous values, including relationships with the land, had been eroding since the arrival of the first trader to the far north; they would pose no barrier to the pipeline project.[4]

In the 1970s, the rhetoric about national interest and national unity as well as the idea of inevitable development were recruited to legitimize settler state intervention into the Indigenous territory of the north. The Canadian federal government advocated the construction of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline by comparing it to the Canadian Pacific Railway. According to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, “it is expensive, but so was the Canadian Pacific Railway a century ago. Is it too big a project for Canada? Only in the view of those who have lost faith in what Canada is all about.”[5] The government’s symbolic rhetoric, connecting the railway and the pipeline as defining projects in nation building, was repeated by W. P. Wilder, chairman of the Canadian Arctic Gas Pipeline Limited, as he advocated the significance of the major economic development projects for the strength of Canada and the national unity:

Almost 100 years ago, we reached across the prairies and over the Rockies to unite this land by rail. More recently, we invested in the land again to build the Interprovincial Pipeline system, followed by the St. Lawrence Seaway, the TransCanada Pipelines system, the Trans-Canada Highway, and extension of the oil line into Montreal. Can any of us imagine Canada today, without these bold investments in the future? (…) We must strength Canada. I suggest to you that natural gas from the Mackenzie Delta transported through the Arctic Gas Pipeline, would be a masterstroke.[6]

The discourse of national unity aimed to absorb the political claims of Indigenous peoples of the far north by absorbing their distinct interests into a pan-Canadian national interest. But the Indigenous relationship with the northern landscape — reciprocal and inherited from the ancestors — was far different than the settler nation-state’s perspective, which was driven by land exploitation. Away from Ottawa, a different nationhood story was emerging in the form of a renewed push for Indigenous self-determination. While the Inquiry was proceeding, Dene peoples declared their self-government and claimed recognition of the Dene community as a distinct nation.[7] Dene political claims challenged state intervention and capitalist expansion onto their lands through a place-based resistance.[8] They rejected both economic claims to their land and the settler nation-state’s political hegemony over land-related relationships.

Feature image credit: “Mackenzie from the east,” by David Adamec. Public Domain.
[1] The Globe and Mail, May 24, 1976.
[2] James Laxer, “Scenario for a Sell-Out” Special Report, in Last Post Magazine, 2-5 March 1973.
[3] Eric Gourdeau, “The Native Use of Resources in the Context of the Proposed Mackenzie Gas Pipeline,” in Research Reports, Vol. IV of Environmental Impact Assessment of the Portion of the Mackenzie Gas Pipeline from Alaska to Alberta, 93-307. Manitoba: Environmental Protection Board, 1974.
[4] John Howse, “Indians Reject Inevitability of New Culture,” in Opinion and Analysis, 7 July 1976.
[5] James Laxer, “Scenario for a Sell-Out” Special Report, in Last Post Magazine, 2-5 March 1973.
[6] A Presentation by W. P. Wilder, Chairman of the Canadian Arctic Gas Pipeline Limited to the Genesis Club of Toronto, 15 March 1977.
[7] The Dene Declaration of 1975.
[8] Glean Sean Coulthard, Red Skin White Mask: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
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Nevcihan Ozbilge

I am a PhD candidate at the LR Wilson Institute for Canadian History in the Department of History at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

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