The introduction of a new river guiding company to the Nahanni National Park Reserve has become a test of the balance between supporting northern entrepreneurs and welcoming outside investment.
After two Nahanni operators based outside the territory merged last fall, Parks Canada announced there was "room for an additional licence to be awarded without impacting the ecological integrity of the park."
The new licence will be given out under amended rules following a review of the way Parks Canada permits companies to operate in the Nahanni.
In the past, NWT operator Dan Wong had criticized the organization for a policy that he felt benefited operators based outside the territory.
Last summer, Wong – who owns Jackpine Paddle – said the old requirements would make it near-impossible for a smaller company just starting out to have a chance at acquiring a Nahanni licence.
“Some things have changed. It's different, it's better,” said Wong this week regarding Parks' new licensing policy.
“They have they have made it a little more accessible for up-and-coming tour operators."
However, Wong still believes some requirements that remain – like having experience as a business running three or more seven-day wilderness trips over three consecutive years – make it unlikely a northerner will become a part of the club, which he has nicknamed the “southern canoe cartel.”
Neither of the existing operators, Black Feather and Nahanni Wild (which bought Canadian River Expeditions last fall), are headquartered in the Northwest Territories, but they are registered businesses here.
"The Nahanni River is by far the most important river from a commercial point of view, because it [has a] real world-renowned reputation," said Wong, adding that, because it is located in a national park, it has elevated status above other rivers.
"It's typically the one river that folks know about. And that's why it's so important.
"I think that's why it's so carefully guarded by this southern canoe cartel."
Joel Hibbard, whose family owns Nahanni Wild and Canadian River Expeditions, said his business welcomes a new operator.
"We do support the addition of a new licence," he said, voicing support for Parks' requirement that a newly licensed operator have significant experience.
"We believe it's important that it's a person with experience ... and who does justice to the work that had been done to promote the Nahanni," said Hibbard, who feels the existing operators have worked hard to market the Nahanni as a renowned paddling destination.
While Wong has criticized companies like Hibbard's for being headquartered out-of-territory, Hibbard likened it to any mining company coming in and contributing to the economy – they pay taxes, he said, hire locally, and purchase locally where possible.
Hibbard asked: "At what point does outside investment cease to be of value because it’s outside?"
For its part, Parks Canada has stated: "Under the Canada National Parks Act and National Parks of Canada Business Regulations, there are no directives that provide preferential treatment for applicants based on residency.
"An exception exists regarding a local Indigenous operator who may wish to activate an Indigenous licence."
Parks Canada wants companies like Hibbard's and Wong's to have equal opportunity to operate in any national park, anywhere in the country.
From three licences, to three licences
The addition of a new licence is not the same plan Parks put forward last summer, which involved a trial, fourth licence for a new operator to guide trips during the shoulder seasons.
That idea has since been scrapped as Parks instead looks to fill the now-vacant third peak-season licence, created by the sale of Canadian River Expeditions to Nahanni Wild.
Jonathan Tsetso, Parks' superintendent of the Nahanni, explained that when a business holding a licence in a national park is sold, its licence ends.
"This sale happened just as we were closing the final reviews of this policy document," said Tsetso.
"[That gave us] a little bit of an opportunity to consider things into the future – like what do licenses look like in terms of our cap? And what does allocation look like going forward?"
As Canadian River Expeditions had already scheduled some trips for the following season before it was sold, Parks Canada decided to honour those allocated trips under Nahanni Wild's licence in the 2019 season.
In 2019, there will be two licensed operators sharing the allocated commercial trips. In 2020, three licensed operators will share the allocated trips.
"So what [the sale] ended up doing was giving us a little bit of wiggle room," he explained.
"We don't want a small group of companies holding too much allocation.
“This new licence will have an opportunity to operate in some of the more marketable portions of the summer, which was not included going into [the earlier] consultation."
Tsetso added that only a certain number of people can funnel through Náįlįcho (Virginia Falls) on any given day. That means there are only a certain number of commercial and non-commercial trips allowed each year.
Safety and sustainability
"It looks to me that they want the biggest, they want the most well-established, they want the largest company to be the one that gets [the licence]," said Wong.
"Why don't we just have operators from all over bid in an auction or be randomly selected?" He questioned, asserting that process would be fairer than the current system.
Responding to feedback requesting a lottery system online, Parks Canada wrote: "The concern is that lottery entry for commercial trips in a system with modest client demands reduces certainty for any operators to market, plan, and coordinate.
"Furthermore, an unlimited increase of operators in a modest demand system to fill niche gaps may reduce long-term sustainability of visitation."
Tsetso said it's important to Parks and its Indigenous co-operative management partners to look at "how a potential new operator coming into the fold is going to align with these various pieces of safety, providing quality experiences, as well as having a good, sustainable foundational model for operating in a pristine wilderness environment.
"We're asking for three years' operational experience in an environment that's similar to Nahanni. And that’s a reasonable measure."
Hibbard echoed Tsetso's statements.
"There have been fatalities in the Nahanni in the past," he said, adding that for it to remain a safe and viable business environment, and for the reputation of guided tours on the river remain intact, operators must be experienced.
While Wong argues such stringent regulations aren't in place in other national parks, Hibbard stresses the Nahanni is a different river in a different park – and that higher stakes, both in terms of safety and reputation, mean stronger regulations are needed.
A late start?
The deadline for outfitters to submit an application for a 2020 licence is September 30.
Tsetso said Parks and its Indigenous partners hope to review and rate the applications within five months of the deadline.
This worries Wong, who said seats on trips are often sold a year in advance, meaning the successful applicant would be starting its season months behind competitors.
“You need your seats to basically be sold by the time the Snowcastle melts," he said – the same time the new outfitter will receive its licence and can begin planning its season.
Tsetso, in response, said the process is "not designed to be punitive."
The new licensing policy will be reviewed every five years, he said, with the clock resetting in 2020.
So far, there has been little firm interest in the new licence.
Parks Canada issued a call for application on February 22. Tsetso said of April 1 no applications had been submitted.
"This is a pretty new and exciting time, because this hasn't happened in a very long time that we've sought out new operators," he said.
"So we're looking forward to getting applications and going through this process."
Correction: April 3, 2019 - 11:44 MT. Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article identified the two existing outfitters as "southern-based." One of the companies in question wrote to note: "Nahanni River Adventures, Nahanni Wild, and Canadian River Expeditions are run out of a Whitehorse, YT office, making this more of a pan-Canadian canoe cartel." The article has been updated.