The Creator Vs. Canadian Imperialism: Exercise Narwhal, Gunboat Diplomacy, and Oil

The Creator Vs. Canadian Imperialism
Exercise Narwhal, Gunboat Diplomacy, and Oil

by Macdonald Stainsby

September 20, 2004   


(Swans – September 20, 2004)   Before the Republican Guard vanished on the outskirts of Baghdad in early April 2003, the US invasion had run into two major stumbling blocks in its advance on the Iraqi capital: first, there was massive guerrilla resistance that held the advancing troops back, nervous about exposing their over-extended supply lines. Second, there were major sandstorms — with granules getting inside each and every nook and cranny of the military equipment. Jeeps, tanks, even the food was reduced to a standstill or made useless by this “act of God.” At the time, with many of us hoping that this attempt to colonize Iraq would fail, I heard one friend remark “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is Great!”) in reference to the possibility that this unexpected supernatural intervention was divined. Perhaps the Creator– as the indigenous refer to it in the Arctic — is trying to prevent an ecocidal and genocidal colonization that is happening, with next to no fanfare, right now.

“Exercise Narwhal” (1) — the name for the exercises that all three branches of Canada’s military have recently conducted in the north between August 12 and 31, 2004, the largest ever of such maneuvers — was beaten back by storms, winds and other acts of the Arctic’s many beautiful miracles. As they say in the indigenous north: the earth and the elements give you all that you need, just make certain you respect the earth. Perhaps then, the most beautiful part of Narwhal was when weather conditions caused two soldiers to lose their way and end up wandering and lost — with no idea where they were or where they should go to. To paraphrase from Albert Einstein: The Creator doesn’t play dice with the weather.

Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin recently concluded a trip to the Arctic. (2) While he was on his four day tour through the Yukon, Northwest Territories (NWT) and Nunavut, he proclaimed “I’ve always loved the North.” Well, since visiting the Arctic in 2003 I would have to agree with that much, but for rather different reasons. What caused this sudden pilgrimage to the “last frontier?” In the 19th Century, it was to mine gold. Now, it’s drilling for natural gas (the largest deposits untapped on the planet), oil (again, huge untapped reserves) as well as the largest supply of non-African diamonds found on the earth. All of these reasons would be plenty, but there is far more than that alone at stake. The “benefits” of global warming that Herb Dhaliwal (former PM Jean Chretien’s Minister of Natural Resources) once explicitly welcomed are nearly here: the ice packs are melting and technology is improving — both at a breakneck speed. This is opening up a Northwest Passage route — the very one that many early white settlers perished trying in vain to find or carve over two centuries ago and multiple times since. When this happens in full, it will be the single greatest revolution in global shipping routes since the Panama Canal was dug by the men who died in the thousands in what is now a permanent American base (legally returned to Panama in 1999). There’s a hitch, however. In fact, there are four hitches, and all of them are border disputes.

There are two with the United States (Alaska), one with Russia, and the most divisive is actually with Denmark (Greenland). The United States has already declared that the Northern route would be international waters and not subject to the sovereignty of any state. What Canada is doing with the military is good ol’ fashioned gunboat diplomacy, albeit symbolic, and it is being carried out on several targets.

Islands in the north have fuzzy determinations of who owns what; many have never been recorded as the “official” territory of any state. Since international law states a country maintains sovereignty of waters three miles from land, determining where in the Arctic Ocean borders must be drawn — and therefore who will run and maintain this radically shorter transport route for eastern Asia to Europe, Atlantic Turtle Island to Asia, and Pacific Turtle Island to Europe — becomes a geopolitical question of gigantic significance. The British imperialists have noted for centuries: whoever controls the seas controls the global economy. Hans Island, in between Greenland/Denmark and Ellesmere Island/Canada, is just such an example. The Danish navy months ago dispatched a Dane flag to the rock using a naval warship to do so, and Canada plans to do much the same. Though a true military “solution” is next to impossible, tempers have flared and relations have been strained, with Canada issuing a diplomatic protest. (3)

Before the passage opens up, Canadian imperialism needs to assert sovereignty over these islands. However, the sovereignty battle isn’t merely with these other imperial states, but mainly with the nations who have lived there for thousands upon thousands of years. They face extinction, cultural and physical, with the Canadian state and their continued efforts to build a pipeline through the entire 1700 kilometer long Mackenzie Valley. This was first proposed in the early seventies, where a commission was set up to investigate the proposal — the Berger Inquiry. The Berger Inquiry, after visiting many villages across the North, came to startling conclusions. One of those was that the north is no one’s frontier, it is a homeland for the Dene, the Inuvialuit and the Metis — and it has been for millenniums, and none were either conquered, defeated or ever ceded anything to Canada. When the odd white settlers or explorers tried to maneuver through the terrain, without the help of the “Eskimos,” they would have perished (and often did). The far reaches of the north, on the edge of the Arctic Ocean where the Mackenzie Delta meets the Beaufort Sea, more than oil and gas naturally occur. Some of the largest herds of Caribou in the world — the porcupine herds — make their annual migration through northern Alaska, Yukon and the NWT to their calving grounds. Many birds exclusive to the area live here and would not remain with any serious industrial introductions to the area. Most important, concluded the Berger inquiry, the proposed pipelines to the north would destroy the traditional life and culture of the nations who inhabit the territory.

Using a definition that is very similar in conception to the Pan Arab Nation, in 1975 a conference that was initiated by Greenland-based Inuit nations, describing themselves as Eskimo peoples, declared,

“We Eskimo are an international community sharing common language, culture, and a common land along the Arctic coast of Siberia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland. Although not a nation-state, as a people, we do constitute a nation.” (4)

However, since the initial Berger inquiry had left the door open for groups such as Canadian Arctic Gas Pipeline or the Foothills Pipe Lines (two initial bidders who were unable to start their devastating plans in the 1970s) to reapply in the future for a pipeline by concluding that,

The settlement of Native claims offers a uniquely Canadian challenge, certainly the greatest challenge we face in the North. It is by this means alone that we can fairly pursue frontier goals in the northern homeland. (5)

To “fairly pursue” has been attempted, if by “fairly” one includes agreements where no oil, gas or water is owned or controlled by any northern nation — be they Inuit such as the Gwich’in, or Dene Indians, such as the Deh Cho. The control of mineral resources has been far less than total though not absolutely denied, like the oil and gas reserves. In more recent “treaties,” such as the creation of Nunavut, some revenues will be partially shared but control of these resources will not be for the indigenous people who, in that territory, make up 85% of the population. (6)

The experiences of the Ogoni peoples in Nigeria as to what happens when oil companies come in promising a boom should be sufficient to elucidate what will happen to people who have continued to “stand on their land together.” (7) Where the fewest settlers have flooded in, the healthiest societies have remained. Where religion, “schooling” (the blight of assimilation intended and genocidal Anglican Residential Schools have appeared all over the north as well) and “civilization” have penetrated, national traditions, culture and language have been all but disintegrated in a familiar pattern: alcoholism, poverty and a disconnect from both the world of the whites and the traditions of their elders; Rudyard Kipling and his progeny then blame the victim of their policies. While traveling up the “Dempster Highway,” one goes through a town named Tetlit Zheh (still usually called “Fort McPherson”). In this town, artificially created on tundra that has no historical significance in location for the indigenous peoples who make up the over-whelming bulk of the population, I discovered that the schools built by the Canadian and territorial governments are regularly destroyed and burnt down by the inhabitants. It seems that even this very depressed town still clings to their right to resistance of assimilation, even long after forceful relocation to this settlement post. These kinds of stories, seemingly “extreme” to outsiders and whites, are common and become all the more so in areas where traditions are deliberately destroyed and snowmobiles, trinket and carpet building and tourist hosting become the order of the day. That day order is what the proposed pipeline would be installing over the entirely of the north.

In the case of the Mackenzie pipeline, more than simply a long metal pipe full of gas will be put through; to traverse the valley from the ocean to Yellowknife (the capital city and economic hub of the NWT in the southern portion of the territory) many settlements replete with supplies, modern roads to deliver them, disruption of general environmental corridors and the inevitable “accidents” will have to be constructed. This will mean massive migration of work-seeking whites and other non-indigenous across some of the most pristine and beautiful lands on the entire earth. The original Berger Inquiry concluded in 1977 and the Ogoni experience with Shell Oil in Nigeria show: the environmental destruction of an area where people have strong ties to the land destroys the people. (8) That is genocide, ultimately, by any definition. Further, the social costs far outweigh any so-called “trickle down” theory — such as the “boom” predicted throughout the north should supposedly provide, were a pipeline to be rammed through. Such social costs are being discussed across the north right now, such as the inevitable exploitation of vulnerable indigenous women to the sex-trade just as in places like Dawson City a century-plus ago, during the initial “gold rush.” According to CBC North: “A group representing native women in the N.W.T. says it expects prostitution to increase if a pipeline is built down the Mackenzie Valley.” (9) Other dangers are the continued despoliation of the land, already poisoned by the “grasshopper effect” (10) that dumps toxic chemicals expelled into the atmosphere of the south by industrial activity (such as DDT, toxaphene, chlordane, PCBs and mercury) on the peoples of the north — these pollutants enter the food chain through animals traditionally hunted (thus, the more traditional and resilient to colonization the northern peoples are, the more poisons consumed by them).

The Deh Cho, a Dene “band” whose territory are among those traversed by the proposed pipeline, have filed an injunction to stop the environmental assessment (11) led by the Canadian government from going ahead, but it will have to be part of a larger effort by many of us in the south if we are to seriously prevent the pipeline and settlements themselves. The Deh Cho, by having the previously mentioned “deals” that “extinguish” any further land claims and deny them control of all oil and gas and most mineral resources in exchange for hunting rights, the right to control legislation such as alcohol and road access (except for the military) have very few legal recourses to stop the penetration of Canadian imperialism. Such stalling tactics as these lawsuits (12) are sparse; even the leaders of the Inuvialuit nations as well as the Dene have mostly called for the construction of a pipeline. It might seem the ultimate betrayal, but the alternative — so long as no one in the south is paying attention — is the continued destruction through high suicide rates, forced relocations, alcoholism, drugs and the creation of dependency on technologies foreign to the 30,000 year history of peoples in the north. Many “leaders” want to believe that the result of the “modernization” of the north through the imposition of this pipeline will alleviate the poverty and destruction of a people in slow motion. Others have long argued that this is correct — a pipeline would stop the slow motion destruction already in progress, and instead accelerate such destruction within a generation.

Imperial Oil have smartly been pushing for a review, an assessment of social and environmental costs of such a pipeline — thus preempting the Deh Cho, Gwich’in and other “tribal councils” along with women’s groups and environmental NGOs who will question where this is all headed. However, the strategy appears to be to do things as quickly as possible, so that the development can get under way; the results of the inquiry — slated to be almost the exact opposite of the results put forth by the Berger Inquiry in 1977 — seem to have a predestined outcome. When environmentalist Kevin O’Reilly was recently pressed to be more “co-operative” with the assessment, he remarked to the CBC, “Co-operation for what, for speeding up the development, getting the environmental assessment over as quickly as possible?” (13) O’Reilly works for the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, (14) a northern NGO that has been named as a green face on the panel to decide “if” a pipeline should go through. In the middle of Exercise Narwhal, the panel was already attempting to assert the results it wanted. (15) On August 17, O’Reilly had noted of the panel: “They’ll have rules of procedure given to them, and they will also not have the ability to change the terms of reference, which is highly unusual.” This means, in a nutshell, the new panel has no independence.

The Paul Martin regime in Ottawa has stated that one of the primary goals of this federal government is to “restore relations” with the United States government, so it is important, in fact essential, for us to view what is happening to the indigenous nations of the north at the hands of the settler state as a part of the “war on terror.” It is rarely disputed that the real over-arching goals of the “war” is one for energy resources and against the self-determination of any people who might get in the way of the gluttonous energy needs of the imperialist states of North America. As we get ready for what has been called “the Peak Experience” of a looming global collapse of oil and other energy reserves (see Kelpie Wilson’s indispensable article of the same name (16)), it is far easier to understand why the very projects that only a few decades ago even the Canadian ruling class would deem “too destructive” (the Berger Inquiry stated that “social consequences of the pipeline will not only be serious — they will be devastating.” (17)) will now get the go-ahead almost no matter what. No matter what, that is, unless people in the south can somehow be convinced that this struggle for self-determination (and indeed, environmental survival) is as important as the struggles for Palestine, East Timor, the Ogoni, and other beleaguered peoples who stand no physical chance on their own but can withstand being wiped out when a massive international solidarity movement emerges to stand with them.

Speaking to a group of “Arctic Rangers” tasked with patrolling the north, Martin said, “These are the very men and women who are at the very forefront of the protection of our sovereignty…”; (18) and he’s right, if by “ours” he means the white settler state. His speech was at the outset of Exercise Narwhal, designed to do much to “restore” sovereignty to Canada in the north before the Northwest Passage completely opens up. The three states that Canada is disputing with are the very three states that contain the nation of the Inuit (or “Eskimo”) people — all three of whom have the same vested interest in denying these nations as a people the inherent right to self-determination. So any real move to establish Inuit, Dene or Metis self-determination in the north will not come as a cynical ploy to undermine Canada by Denmark, the U.S. or Russia, but will have to come from the nations themselves — with the help of those who would advance self-determination and that are currently living in the south.

Exercise Narwhal didn’t quite go as planned. The weather of the Arctic is as cold to outsiders as the people of the north are warm to them. It doesn’t offer you any break and nothing can prepare you for it, either. From August 12th to 31st, Narwhal was supposed to conduct two exercises around recovery of fictitious satellite debris and an invasion by another state to collect said debris. Over 600 troops were to be deployed. On Monday, August 23rd, two soldiers who had been completely lost without communications or weapons were recovered after being stranded while out on part of the mission. The weather prohibited a search and rescue mission, leaving them wandering the barren tundra overnight. On August 21st, a Sea King Helicopter couldn’t brave the winds as it tried to take off as part of the exercise and instead burst into flames in the fog. The same fog also prevented the Twin Otter planes and the Griffon Helicopters from taking part in the mission at all, right from the very first days of Narwhal. Even technological miracles couldn’t get their supposed job done, “[T]he RADARSAT-1 satellite used in the exercise delivered digital printouts of the area only once, out of six attempts,” according to Nunatsiaq News writer Greg Younger-Lewis. Only one of the scheduled exercises was able to actually be carried out. Considering what is at stake in Canada’s attempt to “assert sovereignty,” such mishaps caused me more than a small smile.

At his press conference in Pond Inlet on August 12th, PM Paul Martin had stated: “We are here in a land that is ageless. A land that has been occupied by a great people since time immemorial… It is a wonderful thing to see a living history.” (19) Indeed, he is quite correct about that. Thus is why the Creator gets my nod as the early hero of this battle for sovereignty and survival. Colonel Normand Couturier perhaps stated it best: “There’s not much we can do about the weather,” also adding “You can have the best equipment in the world but you can’t defeat it.” (20)

The Creator has put up the first defense in what will now be an accelerating battle across the “Frontiers” of Yukon, the NWT, Nunavut, Greenland, Alaska and Siberia. That is, the battle to annihilate the great historic nations of the Arctic North and the lands therein — their homelands — that even Paul Martin noted, have been there “since time immemorial.” Now it will be the turn of those of us who truly mean it when we speak of the need to defend self-determination and indigenous sovereignty.

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5.  Berger, Mr Justice Thomas R. The Report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, Volume 2, Terms and Conditions, Chapter 22: Native Claims and Political Development in the Northwest Territories, p219. Minister of Supply and Services Canada: 1977.  (back)

6.  For a more detailed description of these “treaties” including a breakdown case-study of the Inuvialuit Final Agreement, see my Dissident Voice article, “The Coming Northwest Passage…” of August 9:  (back)

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