Seismic Lines

The sun is shining at the Tsiigetchic ferry crossing, though it is midnight. It’s a week after the summer solstice, just north of the Arctic Circle, and Amar Al-Awad stands by his red pickup taxi puffing on a cigarette. The river glows pink, and the ferry puttering from shore to shore is the only other sign of life, so we follow it with our eyes. Otherwise, our two vehicles are the only ones in sight. I ask Amar if he’s adjusted well to the north. “It’s not easy. But it’s not bad,” he says. “I like the north, but it’s just too far.”

Inuvik is always on the verge of booming, even if the big boom that promises to change everything hasn’t shown up.

Tuktoyaktuk, 2013. Photo courtesy of the author.

The sun is shining at the Tsiigetchic ferry crossing, though it is midnight. It’s a week after the summer solstice, just north of the Arctic Circle, and Amar Al-Awad stands by his red pickup taxi puffing on a cigarette. The river glows pink, and the ferry puttering from shore to shore is the only other sign of life, so we follow it with our eyes. Otherwise, our two vehicles are the only ones in sight. I ask Amar if he’s adjusted well to the north. “It’s not easy. But it’s not bad,” he says. “I like the north, but it’s just too far.”

We’re both headed to Inuvik, the northernmost town reachable by road year-round in the Canadian Arctic. Inuvik is a town of 3,600 in the Mackenzie Delta in the Northwest Territories (NWT), about 100 km south of the Beaufort Sea. It is roughly one-third Inuvialuit (Inuit), one-third First Nations, and one-third non-aboriginal. For a month of the year, the sun doesn’t rise, and for another, the sun doesn’t set. All utility pipes run above ground because of the permafrost, the mix of rock, soil, and ice that is permanently frozen just a few feet below ground. Although Amar is originally from the Sudan, he had been living in Canada for about ten years when his cousin, a cab driver making good money in Inuvik, invited him to visit. Amar visited and stayed. That was 2009. He doesn’t plan to remain, but for now the wages are good and he saves nearly all of them—there’s nothing to buy around here. But this could change: Inuvik is the largest town in Canada along the Arctic energy frontier. It is always on the verge of booming, even if the big boom that promises to change everything hasn’t shown up.

I arrived in summer on a road trip with a friend. We drove up the Dempster Highway, which begins in the tourist town of Dawson City and winds northward for 736 km to Inuvik, the only road in Canada that leads into the Arctic Circle all year round. Dawson is frozen in commemoration of its own birth, the Klondike Gold Rush that brought workers and investment in droves, but this nostalgic display quickly fades from view once we’re on the road, with forest giving way to mountains, and mountains flattening into rolling hills and eventually tundra. The gradual disappearance of trees marks a climate growing harsher; eventually, the anemic black spruces, leaning lazily in every direction thanks to the permafrost, disappear altogether. In every direction are undulating expanses of land, and for hours at a time, there are no signs of human life, no power lines or even guard railings to prevent the tired driver, hypnotized by the vastness of it all, from veering off the road.

A specter haunts Inuvik, and the Dempster was constructed in anticipation. That specter is oil and gas, and the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline that will transport it south. The Arctic is estimated to contain at least a quarter of the world’s undiscovered natural gas reserves and 13 percent of its oil. A third of Canada’s remaining conventionally recoverable natural gas resources and a quarter of its light crude oil reserves are located in the NWT and Nunuvat.

The possibility of massive oil exploitation has periodically galvanized the region into a frenzy, prompting visions of a boom many times more drastic than the one currently overtaking western Pennsylvania and upstate New York; it is perhaps more on par with the development of the Alberta Tar Sands in the ’70s, which transformed Calgary from a farming town into a wealthy oil capital. The Mackenzie Valley Pipeline was first proposed in 2004 by a consortium of oil giants, including Imperial Oil, ConocoPhilips, ExxonMobil, and Shell. One thousand one hundred and ninety-six kilometers long, the pipeline would connect Inuvik to northern Alberta, link up to existing Tar Sands infrastructure, and transport gas to markets across Canada and into the United States. The Pipeline is part of the Mackenzie Gas Project which, when completed, will be the largest pipeline system in Canada’s north, driving the development of other fields in the region, much as the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline will drive further development of the Tar Sands by connecting it to foreign markets.

The government approved the Mackenzie Gas Project in 2010, but two years later, disaster—of a sort, anyway—struck: US natural gas production reached an all-time high and natural gas prices dipped to a ten-year low. Suddenly, the Mackenzie Valley reserves began to seem less attractive, and the project was placed on hiatus. Shell is trying to sell its share, while the remaining partners decided at the end of 2013 not to go ahead with the project in its originally proposed form.

“The oil men, they come and go,” said Gerry Kisoun, who was born along the banks of the Delta, grew up in Inuvik, and is now Deputy Commissioner of the NWT. “They come for a while, think they are going to make big money, and then all of a sudden, somebody says ‘there’s not going to be any pipeline.’ And away they go. They’re here for a couple of days, compared with the fifty-plus years I’ve been around here and part of the community.”

For now the pipeline is moribund, but it will undoubtedly return. By February 2014, NWT premier Bob Macleod was talking about reviving the pipeline (although this next iteration would not connect the Mackenzie Delta to Alberta but to British Columbia instead, where plans are currently being discussed for exporting liquefied natural gas to China). The revenues for the NWT could be stunning, particularly now that a devolution agreement with the federal government has come into effect (in April 2014), which will give the NWT greater control over its public lands and resources, and a higher share of development royalties. The pipeline will continue to haunt the region, just as it has since the seventies, when a similar pipeline was first proposed.


Throughout North America, indigenous communities are on the frontline of most of the current battles against the oil and gas industry: the existing section of the Keystone XL pipeline, which runs southward from central Alberta, comes within 50 km of 150-plus First Nations communities and has facilities located on First Nations reserves, while the currently proposed extension in the United States will traverse several Native American reservations, where it risks damaging sacred grounds and the health of residents through pollution and contamination.

But in the Mackenzie Delta, the relationship between indigenous communities and the oil industry is complicated. In the popular imagination, oil usually appears as a Manichean fight between indigenous communities and oil companies, but it was the promise of oil that produced Inuvik. The history of modern development in the Delta—large-scale infrastructure development, the shift to settlement living and survival through the wage-economy, and integration into global economic networks—cannot be separated from the history of oil and gas. Unlike in Alberta, where agriculture spurred the development of infrastructure long before the oil industry swooped in, resource exploitation has been the single largest factor spurring development in the Delta, and thereby integrating it with the global economy and providing cheaper and better access to resources and amenities. At the same time, Canada’s treaties and land agreements with the Inuit and First Nations have laid the groundwork for an aboriginal ownership stake in the Mackenzie Gas Project, that some residents of the Delta hope will fund improvements to their communities.

The Dempster Highway stands a testament to this fact. Before the Dempster existed, the Delta was largely unconnected to the southern provinces, and only when oil was struck in 1959 in Eagle Plains (now the halfway point up the Dempster) did construction on the highway begin. After two years it was abandoned with only 115 km completed: the wells at Eagle Plains had turned out to be much smaller than originally predicted, and federal funding was cut accordingly. The hiatus would be short: in 1968, enormous oil reserves were discovered in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska (still the largest oil field in North America), reviving excitement over northern oil and gas investments, while stoking fears about maintaining Canadian sovereignty over the US in the north. New federal funds for the Dempster appeared, and construction on the highway resumed, though it was not completed until 1978, twenty years after it began and CAN$95 million over its initial budget of CAN$8. Inuvik was finally connected to the south.

Nearly forty years later, little has changed: development in the Mackenzie remains inextricably tied to speculation about future oil and gas projects. The central difference today is that most of the Delta’s residents now live in settlements and rely on the wage economy to survive. For them, there are now real financial benefits to becoming more integrated with the south. Construction extending the highway began again in March 2013, and territorial government has estimated that, when complete, the extension would save hundreds of millions for the Mackenzie Gas Project over forty-five years. It is safe to say that food prices in small hamlets like Tuktoyaktuk, near Inuvik but much more difficult to access, will also drop. In the meantime, food prices are 68 percent higher in towns accessible only by plane or boat than in the territorial capital Yellowknife, and sometimes 200 percent higher in the summertime when the ice roads melt.

The Dempster Highway was constructed to increase southern access to northern resources, but the road goes two ways. For the indigenous residents of the Delta, it increased access to the south and its many offerings, but also brought easier access to alcohol, an influx of workers from the south, and greater pressures to participate in the wage economy. In this sense, the Dempster is actually a one-way road, and the community’s integration into to the global economy can’t be reversed. The Inuvialuit and Gwi’chin that dominate the region are no longer nomadic; they have become merely itinerant: Gerry lived in the southern provinces for over twenty years as a member of the RCMP, though he considers Inuvik and the Delta his home, and he sees that Inuvik is restless, with many residents waiting on the Mackenzie Gas Project, the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway, and another potential highway, the Mackenzie Valley Highway, to create jobs.


“Busy people are happy people,” Gerry Kisoun told me. “When there’s nothing going on there, the community dies. And when there’s nothing going on, young people are going to start moving. They’re going to get tired of waiting for somebody to say, ‘hey, we got jobs for you.’”

His father, Victor Allen was a trapper, and Gerry was born in his grandfather’s trapping cabin on the banks of the Mackenzie in 1953, the same year Inuvik was conceived. In those days, the Inuvialuit were still largely nomadic and lived off the land, but that would change when town construction began in 1955. Victor’s relative told him that he was moving there for work; if Allen wanted to bring his family to town, he could find work too, and he did just that the following year, after the muskrat hunting season was over.

For three years, the family lived alongside other Inuvialuit families on the river bank in a tent frame that barely insulated them against the 50 degree-below-zero days. Soon, the family moved into a little house on the West side of town, which was mostly indigenous and poorer than the East side, where nicer houses with running water housed Armed Forces personnel from the south. But it was not until he started school up the hill that his life began to divide: during the week, he stayed in Inuvik, attending school, playing with friends, and as he got older, picking up odd jobs for extra cash. Weekends were different. He traveled with his father out on the land, where Victor taught him to hunt, trap and survive, and this is where Gerry felt most at home, not in the settlement life of Inuvik. With his extra pocket money, he bought four dogs of his own and began traveling out onto the Delta alone in the winter, visiting relatives who still lived on the land.

Buzz was building about the Mackenzie Delta being the next Niger Delta, and as early as 1957, major corporations like Dome, Chevron and Esso were surveying the area, discovering oil onshore at Atkinson Point on the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula in 1969, and natural gas at Parson’s Lake in 1970, about 75km northeast of Inuvik. Rumors began to circulate of a potential pipeline leading down the Mackenzie Valley to Alberta, which promised to put Inuvik on the map. The following decade would see a frenzy of drilling in the Delta-Beaufort region, with investments exceeding CAN$1 billion in some years. Inuvik had become a far cry from the life Gerry’s father had left behind, when he simply went out to check his trap lines as he woke, and ended the day when he was done working with his animals—when, as Gerry says, “there was no such thing as time.” Instead, they were forced to wake up on the clock each day for school or work.

In 1974, the consortium Arctic Gas proposed to build a pipeline to carry natural gas from the Delta and Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, down the Mackenzie River Valley to Alberta. The subsequent federally commissioned Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, carried out by Justice Thomas Berger, would mark a turning point in Canada’s relationship to the North, bringing Northern voices—and especially indigenous voices—into the national dialogue about northern development. Berger traveled to all thirty-five communities in the Mackenzie Valley to gauge public opinion about the proposed pipeline and heard the testimony of over a thousand people—a feat for which he is still lionized in Canada as a defender of pluralistic democracy.

At the same time, an indigenous movement was building in the Delta; Gerry’s mother Bertha Allen was deeply involved with the Committee for Original People’s Entitlement (COPE), a group formed in Inuvik in 1970 to represent Inuvialuit interests against oil and gas development. COPE witnesses before the Commission argued that their communities relied upon the land for their social, economic and cultural livelihoods, and that these would be jeopardized by the pipeline. Seismic lines, access roads and increased traffic would disturb caribou migration, while construction and maintenance of the pipeline would require an influx of highly-trained workers from the south. Proponents of the pipeline did not deny these facts, arguing instead that this simply meant that indigenous people should abandon their traditional modes of living, and participate instead in the wage economy.

The pipeline did not go ahead; in his landmark 1977 report, Berger recommended a ten-year moratorium, so that indigenous land claims could first be settled in the area. But the wage economy continued to encroach, just at a slower, more manageable pace. After all, the moratorium didn’t apply to exploration and drilling, only pipeline construction, and when the Iranian Revolution of 1979 precipitated the second oil crisis in a decade, the Trudeau government seized upon fears about Canadian oil independence, initiating an energy program that allowed companies to write off more than 100 percent of northern exploration costs.

After twenty-five years away, Gerry returned to Inuvik, and much has changed, but at least the Mackenzie River still remains a place of tranquility. Summer evenings are the best: the sun loses its harshness, the moisture dissipates from the air, and best of all, when the boat is moving, the mosquitoes aren’t deft enough to land on your skin. “River” is a misnomer here, despite the Mackenzie being the largest river draining into the Arctic Ocean in North America; in the Delta, the Mackenzie is really a labyrinth of islands and winding streams that look virtually identical to the untrained eye, but Gerry navigates with ease.

“How far will the melting go?” asks Gerry. “And what will happen when it does?”

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“We’re getting a lot of erosion along our rivers,” he says, pointing to the bank. A few minutes earlier, we had passed a teetering wooden hut, hanging over the edge of the bank by several feet, the dirt beneath it literally having been washed away. The erosion is caused by the melting permafrost, which loosens the earth above it and can lead to floods and collapsed land. “How far will the melting go?” asks Gerry. “And what will happen when it does?” He pauses and points through the front windshield, to his nephew Victor Kisoun sitting on the bow, smoking a cigarette and taking in the view. Victor’s generation, he says, will be the ones bearing the brunt of environmental change. It is already happening: otters began appearing as far north as the Delta just a few years back, and kingfishers too.


By the 1990s, the Berger moratorium had ended, and land claims had been settled with the Inuvialuit, Gwich’in and Sahtu nations in the region; the Inuvialuit won legal title of over 90,000 square km of territory, including Aklavik, Tuk, and Inuvik. The Northwest Territories was fully open for exploration and development, but now, 70 percent of oil and gas contracts went to Inuvialuit businesses—a marked difference from the Alberta Tar Sands region, where First Nations have no ownership stake and also bear the brunt of the industry’s destructive and toxic effects (First Nations communities in the Tar Sands regions exhibit especially high levels of rare cancers and autoimmune diseases).

As of 2014, COPE’s argument that maintaining a traditional way of life was antithetical to participating in the wage economy is already moot; few Inuvialuit continue to subsist on the land alone. The goal now is simply to maintain indigenous rights over their territories, promote the kind of development that will benefit the community and land, and to keep traditional knowledge and skills alive.

“We’ve got to find alternative ways to develop our territory sustainably without having to destroy it, and for me it’s ecotourism, and it’s a green energy production,” argues Gerry’s nephew, Victor Kisoun. Victor is tall and gregarious, resembling a Dene and Inuit Ron Livingston. “Can’t we find something that’s abundant in nature and promotes and preserves our culture, and find a way to make money off it?”

Victor is, in a sense, a direct legacy of the Berger Commission: his parents met during the Inquiry. His father Dave Porter, a native activist from Northern British Columbia, was a radio technician for the CBC and followed Berger across the Delta and to Inuvik, the hometown of Gerry’s sister Yvonne Kisoun. Three years after the Report was released, Victor was born. Growing up with negligent parents dealing with alcoholism and their own marred childhoods, Victor struggled to understand his place as a rural, indigenous kid in the post-industrial, white man’s world, but eventually found strength through traditional drumming and dancing.

In 2012, after the grassroots indigenous Idle No More movement began to spread across Canada, his dance group, the Whitehorse, Yukon-based Dakhka Khwaan dancers, took the lead in organizing protests and teach-ins about new legislation threatening the community. It made sense: they had already been organizing around preserving their culture and language against forced enculturation, and they were already armed with song and dance.

Idle No More had been launched in November of that year in protest of Stephen Harper’s Bill C-38, a budget bill that amends dozens of pieces of legislation, ranging from changes to environmental regulations, to the repeal of the Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act. Crucially, for the nationwide movement, it also violated indigenous treaty rights and threatened the environment in traditional First Nations lands.

“You can complain about your rights and your title all day, but if you don’t exercise your rights, it’s like a muscle, you are going to lose it,” said Victor. “The culture groups are fine examples: sitting on different boards related to development, like water boards, or running on local councils . . . and making your voice heard. If you never danced before, there are tons of dance groups; if don’t know your language, go out and learn your language. Go sit with your aunt or your uncle or your grandma, ask them for stories, ask them to teach you this stuff. Because who else is going to do it for you?”

Idle No More protests were also organized in southern towns and hamlets of the NWT, as well as in Yellowknife, but they did not reach Inuvik. The temperature would not have been considerably more frigid, but the sun does not rise for a month in Inuvik during that time of the year—at least Whitehorse and Yellowknife still get five hours of sunlight a day.

But there may be other reasons too. Inuvik is an oil boom town, whose development since birth has been predicated on the idea that one day, oil and gas will flow plentifully, bringing with it jobs and wealth enough for indigenous communities to be self-sufficient again. But that promise is trapped in the logic of its own history: just because Inuvik owes much of its past development to oil and gas futures, does not mean that oil and gas provides the best or only avenue for future development. Even the most visible aboriginal proponent of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline, Nellie Cournoyea (who was one of the central figures within COPE) admits that very few locals would be employed by it, as those jobs are highly-skilled. Rather, the benefits would trickle down, through indirect employment and the creation of more investment opportunities.

“The company reaps most of the benefits, and the majority of the employees that are hired come from outside of the community, and they take the money with them out. What real benefit is 30 or 40 years of a few contracts, a few jobs?” asks Victor. “What are you going to do then?

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