The Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation says a “bureaucratic mess of the GNWT’s own creation” has prevented its Frontier Lodge from getting a business or liquor licence.
According to a Wednesday news release from the First Nation, the territorial Department of Municipal and Community Affairs (Maca) has refused to issue the lodge a business licence until it reviews policy requirements for licensing remote lodges.
The First Nation says Maca also rescinded a temporary occupancy load permit granted to the lodge in March – a requirement for getting a liquor licence.
“I can’t even begin to understand the thinking behind this decision,” Chief Darryl Marlowe was quoted as saying.
“Instead of working to support our vision, it seems like Maca is intent on shutting down a successful tourism business by refusing to grant a new licence. The only thing that has changed in terms of the operation is that the lodge is now owned by an Indigenous community, rather than by non-residents of the NWT.”
The First Nation purchased the 60-year-old fishing lodge from its former Alberta-based owners in December 2019. It’s a key part of the community’s plan to build a sustainable local economy, the news release states.
Along with fishing trips, which Frontier Lodge has always offered, the First Nation plans to expand operations with adventure tours and cultural programming.
It intends for the lodge to become “the gateway to Thaidene Nëné” – a 26,525 square kilometre protected area northeast of Łutselkʼe, that includes a national park reserve and territorial protected areas.
The First Nation wants the territorial government to exempt the lodge from Maca’s business licence requirement until policy issues have been resolved.
“The GNWT’s failure to consider their own policy gaps shouldn’t be our problem,” Chief Marlowe said.
A muskox in Thaidene Nëné a 26,525 square kilometre protected area northeast of Łutsël K’é.
“It’s hard enough to try to operate a tourism business in the middle of a pandemic, but we didn’t expect to have to fight the GNWT to license a business that has been operating safely and successfully for decades.”
Frontier Lodge general manager Corey Myers has worked at the lodge for 10 years and said it never needed a business licence from Maca until now. The lodge had previously been regulated only by the Department of Industry, Tourism, and Investment, which oversees tourism operator licences.
Myers said he was unaware of other lodges facing the same challenges with Maca as he doesn’t know of any others in the territory that were recently sold.
‘Bringing us backwards’
According to Myers, Frontier Lodge applied for a business licence from Maca on March 20. It didn’t receive a response until April 24, when the department said it still needed to make policy decisions.
Last week, the department rescinded temporary occupancy load permits that were granted to the lodge pending a June inspection from a fire marshal.
Myers said that news came only after the lodge decided not to open for the summer due to Covid-19 restrictions.
“I’m not going to say it made the decision not to open any easier, because it didn’t come into play, but it’s still a stress during the most stressful time I can think any business would be in right now,” he said.
Myers called the lack of policies and procedures around licensing remote fishing lodges in the NWT a “bureaucratic black hole.” He said, to his knowledge, a fire marshal has never inspected a remote lodge in the territory.
“At this point it seems like Maca’s hands are tied and they can’t issue anything.”
The only advice Maca has given Frontier Lodge, Myers said, is to withdraw its licence application until policy issues are resolved. He said the lodge does not want to have to go through the process of reapplying for licences.
“There’s been no clarity, there’s been no direction other than to withdraw our application which is bringing us backwards, literally backwards,” he said.
GNWT had been ‘lenient’ with remote lodges
Steve Norn, the MLA for Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh, raised the issue in the Legislative Assembly on Wednesday.
Norn questioned why Frontier Lodge is now required to have a business licence from Maca and why its approval has been delayed.
Premier Caroline Cochrane answers a question in the legislature in May 2020.
Norn called the lodge “one of the premier fishing lodges in the NWT” and said the territory “cannot afford to lose any of its tourism operators.”
Premier Caroline Cochrane, who took over as minister of Maca in April, said there has always been a policy requiring remote tourism operations to have a business licence and an occupancy permit to get a liquor licence.
Until now, she said, the government has been a “little bit lenient” with lodges, but a review of the Fire Prevention Act had confirmed these requirements.
“We want to help them but we also have to make sure that people do follow the law,” she said.
Cochrane said some of the delay in approving Frontier Lodge’s application is due to the pandemic, and acknowledged her government should accept some blame. She said she plans to address the issue by reaching out and working with the lodge.
“We’re not trying to set businesses up to fail, we’re trying to support them,” she said. “We will work with people. We want people to succeed in the NWT.”
Chief Marlowe was unavailable for comment beyond his statements in the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation’s news release.
The department of Municipal and Community Affairs did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.
Ollie Williams contributed reporting.