The Gwich’in Land and Water Board has denied the Nihtat Gwich’in Council’s request to block the development of a wind turbine project on a reindeer grazing reserve.
In 2018, the NWT Energy Corporation submitted an application for a permit to build, operate, and maintain a wind farm about 12 kilometres east of Inuvik at a place known locally as Highpoint.
The territorial government claimed it had powers equivalent to ownership of the proposed area, then used those powers to grant the right to develop the wind farm.
The Nihtat Gwich’in Council (NGC) opposed the project, saying the land in question had been set aside as a reindeer grazing reserve since 2014.
The council said development of the land would “undermine the protective purpose” of the reserve and disregard Nihtat Gwich’in Aboriginal and treaty rights.
On July 30, the council filed a motion for the Gwich’in Land and Water Board – which is the area regulator – to deny a permit for development of the wind farm.
In a ruling released on Thursday, the regulatory board denied that request.
The board ruled the territorial government has the right to occupy the land proposed for the project.
The ruling also rebuffed the NGC’s claim that the GNWT hadn’t properly consulted the Nihtat Gwich’in.
The board decided the territory “is not required by either the Devolution Agreement, the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement, or the common law” to consult third parties when allocating public land for projects that have “no effect” on surrounding communities.
Ire in the Assembly
At the NWT legislature on Friday, Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly queried the use of the reindeer reserve for the project.
“Why did we not change the area that the turbine project is supposed to be located on?” O’Reilly asked. “Why didn’t we take it out of the reindeer reserve before trying to push this project through?”
Robert Jenkins, assistant deputy minister of infrastructure, said the wind farm – known as the Inuvik Wind Project – is “a key initiative” under the GNWT’s 2030 Energy Strategy, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas production from diesel by 25 percent.
The territorial government has said the wind farm could offset approximately three million litres of diesel per year and save $3.4 million in fuel costs.
O’Reilly, though, accused the territory of changing how land is allocated on a whim to suit the NWT government’s needs.
“Are we going to follow our own laws or not?” he asked. “And if you are going to change the law in that region, you need to consult the Indigenous governments, as well.
“We should not be willy-nilly deciding we’re going to change areas that are set out in regulations and unilaterally decide you’re going to make it something else.”
Despite O’Reilly’s concern, infrastructure minister Diane Archie said she was “excited” about the regulatory board’s ruling.
“We continue to engage with communities and Indigenous organizations so we can start to advance the project,” she said, “and ensure the participation and the partnership in the development of any energy solutions here in the territory.”
Correction: October 31, 2020 – 7:43 MT. This report initially stated Robert Jenkins is the NWT’s assistant deputy minister of environment and natural resources. He in fact works for the Department of Infrastructure.