An aerial view of a small lake in the South Slave region of the Northwest Territories in October 2018. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Significant regulatory decisions could be examined as a team of auditors travels the NWT to study the health of the territory’s water.
Taking water as the lone topic represents an overhaul of the audit system, in which the territorial government hires an independent contractor every five years to complete an extensive environmental audit.
In the past, “auditors looked at all of the important compartments of the environment – they call them valued components – from air, to water, to fish, to plants, to wildlife,” said Marc Lange, an auditor who has focused on NWT environmental management for much of his career.
“You still only had 12 months to do an audit and so you could not look at all of these components in great depth,” he said.
Both the auditors and the territory said this will, by contrast, be a more focused deep-dive into the NWT’s water quality and quantity.
Auditors are touring the NWT to hold public engagement sessions, with a view to presenting a first draft of the audit in July.
The audit will not compare the NWT’s environmental health to that of other jurisdictions, but will instead look at how regulatory systems have developed since the last audit and whether earlier recommendations were implemented.
Previous audits were published in 2005, 2010, and 2015.
‘How well the tools are working’
Julian Kanigan, who works for the GNWT in the cumulative impact and monitoring program, said the water theme was chosen by Indigenous governments and organizations on a steering committee.
“A real push for our steering committee is to get out to regions and talk to folks in communities, and ask them how they feel the environment’s being managed,” explained Kanigan.
Public engagement sessions have been completed in Inuvik and Yellowknife, with more planned in Fort Smith, Hay River, Fort Simpson, Behchokǫ̀, and Délı̨nę in the coming months.
Kathy Racher’s Yellowknife-based consultancy is one of four agencies that came together to bid on the audit. Racher led a public engagement session in Yellowknife this week alongside Lange, who works for North by North.
“We’re going to be looking at all the different ways that environmental information is collected across the territory, and we’re going to be looking at the tools that are used to manage the use of land and water in the NWT,” said Racher.
“We’ll be looking at how well those tools are working to protect the environment as well.”
On Tuesday evening, around a dozen people dropped by to participate in a roundtable discussion and write feedback on bright sticky notes for the auditors.
Concerns raised centred on external influences on the NWT’s waterways – such as the Peace River dams and the oil sands – and how these will be taken into consideration in the audit, designed only look at water within the boundaries of the territory.
The auditors will, however, examine transboundary agreements between the NWT other jurisdictions, which are intended to ensure the environment is responsibly and jointly managed. The audit will identify whether these agreements are properly funded.
Others suggested the audit include a recommendation to develop a user-friendly way for people to find answers about environmental concerns that directly impact them, such as: is the water in this lake clean, and are the fish safe to eat?
People also asked for a list of recommendations they personally can implement to do their part in keeping the environment healthy.
How data comes together
“The sessions involving the public are very telling about how the system is working, because you hear from frontline folks, how they experience the regulatory system, how the environment is doing,” reflected Lange, as the public consultation session in Yellowknife drew to a close.
“We’ve had some really great discussions. We’re excited to continue to do those – it would be nice to be able to go to every community in the North … but unfortunately, the work requires we focus in on a few communities.”
He noted the consultation process will also include an online public survey component, which is not yet live.
Reflecting on what they’ve learned so far, Lange said it’s clear plenty of environmental data collection happening – by communities, by different levels of government, by regulatory bodies, and by researchers – but less clear how it all fits together.
“What we’re looking at here is how do all these sources of monitoring information come together so that the government can look at the overall health of the environment,” he explained.
Auditors are taking suggestions for two to three projects, relating to big regulatory decisions, they should spend significant time examining.
Suggestions received already include the impact of the diamond mines and the Tłı̨chǫ all-season road.
After the auditors finish gathering information, they’ll analyze it for trends and patterns.
They’ll have a draft report with recommendations to the GNWT by this summer and the government will have time to provide responses for inclusion in the final document.
“One of the things we’ve been working on with the last few audits is trying to make sure that the recommendations are useful, and so they’re targeted at the organizations that can use them,” said Kanigan.
“And we’ve also asked organizations to respond to recommendations in the audit … so there’s some accountability as to what different organizations are going to do to respond to the audit.”
The auditors also expect the GNWT will release their report to the public for feedback.