When our live stream launches, Cabin Radio will carry a weekly panel show examining decisions that change the lives of Northwest Territories residents.

Government ministers, MLAs and senior executives who take – and debate – those decisions will be regulars on the show. Three guests have up to an hour to explain their ideas, justify the policies they support, and answer tough questions from those who don’t agree.

What unites them is a belief that critical decisions deserve more than soundbites.

From launch in March, these shows will be aired live alongside music and news over the course of an hour, then made available as podcasts for you to listen when you like.

This week

This downloadable 45-minute pilot episode, recorded on Thursday, January 18, features:

  • Industry minister Wally Schumann
  • NWT & Nunavut Chamber of Mines president Gary Vivian
  • Alternatives North representative Karen Hamre

They discuss the future of mining and mineral exploration in the territory – starting with this month’s Roundup conference, which the territorial government will attend at a cost of more than $200,000.

Show highlights

Roundup conference

Wally Schumann opens by continuing to defend the GNWT’s significant presence at the Roundup conference, which has been criticized by MLA Kevin O’Reilly (who, through his staff, declined to appear on this show). Schumann says companies and industry bodies don’t understand the changes in the NWT since Devolution, adding: “We need to educate people.” Gary Vivian adds that unlike some conferences, Roundup is important to the NWT as it focuses on mineral exploration instead of mining itself – exploration being an area where the NWT is currently sorely lacking, by the Chamber of Mines’ own admission in a December news release.

“If you want to quantify it, first of all it’s the exposure that we get there,” adds Schumann, elaborating on the attraction of sending a large presence to the conference. “The Aboriginal participation in this, the uptake has been tremendous – last year we brought three or four different groups down there and now we see a lot of interest from all groups.

“We have to participate. What would happen if we didn’t go? That would show we’re not interested in this industry and there’s no support for it, which is totally wrong.”

But there’s little evidence to suggest efforts like these are making a tangible difference yet, with the Chamber of Mines conceding that interest in NWT mineral exploration continues to slide.

“It’s a belief in the industry that the NWT is a difficult place to work,” explains Vivian. “Some of those issues the GNWT can help with, some they cannot. Land claims is the biggest problem in the NWT because it creates so much uncertainty about who is the landowner. That is the most critical point.”

11:30 – Mineral Resources Act

A new Mineral Resources Act for the NWT is being touted by the territorial government as a solution to some of the territory’s problems. Schumann, several times, calls it a “made-in-the-North” act, implying it will be legislation that understands and helps to solve some issues unique to the territory.

However, there is disagreement about what that Act should do. Both Alternatives North and the Chamber of Mines sent presentations to the territorial government about the Act late last year – and those presentations say very different things.

“The Act should look at how we manage a public resource in the public interest,” says Alternatives North’s Karen Hamre. “It’s not a vehicle for investment.”

But Vivian says attracting investment should be “exactly” the number one priority of this legislation. “Right now, we’re regulated quite strongly,” he adds, “and those are some of the things I don’t think need to belong in a Mineral Resources Act. It’s about industry being able to read a document that asks them to come here and spend their money.”

Hamre argues the wrong department is producing the legislation. She and Alternatives North want the Department of Lands to take over, instead. “That would allow the minister of industry to be the promoter, but the department to be the regulator. Then there wouldn’t be that issue of the fox guarding the chicken coop,” she says.

Schumann dismisses this, saying there is more than enough regulation in place to create the checks and balances needed. He adds: “I’m not going to get everything I want in this Act, Gary’s not, and neither is Alternatives North.” But he won’t say what he expects not to get.

17:50 – Land claims and protected land

The conversation moves to land claims and the controversial question of how much land should be made available for mining and exploration, and how much should be environmentally protected.

As a former Métis leader in the South Slave – and the territory’s former environment minister, now the industry minister – Schumann says he has seen all sides of this argument and he thinks “we’ve made progress.”

Explaining how the mining industry wants the protection of land in the NWT to work, Vivian says: “As long as there’s transparency and an opportunity for all stakeholders to provide what the value is to the land before they close it off, then I think industry would be fine with that. It’s the ‘one brushstroke’ that allows protected areas to be set aside without full collaboration from all stakeholders – that’s a bad precedent to set, because government’s responsibility is also to provide economic opportunities to the people of the North.”

Hamre disagrees. “Even if 50 percent of the NWT were unavailable for development, we’d still have a huge, huge land base available for mineral development – bigger than, for instance, New Brunswick, which still promotes mining development in that jurisdiction,” she contends.

“Most of the Aboriginal communities that I’ve dealt with, and that’s quite a few of them, have said they want development as long as things like protected areas are in place first. I used to be the managing director of the NWT Protected Areas Strategy (which no longer exists). The areas that were brought forward by communities, most of them are still going through a process of evaluation and that process has been going on, in some cases, for decades. There was far more money spent on assessing mineral resources in a candidate area as was spent, combined, on cultural and ecological assessments and other forms of economic assessment. I disagree that there’s a broad brush and mineral resources aren’t looked at.”

26:40 – Royalties

Even if the territory is successful in attracting more mines to the NWT, will it get value for money? A report produced for the territorial government by consultant Andrew Bauer last year says the territory is too generous when it comes to royalties. In other words, mines aren’t giving the NWT as big a share of the profits as they must give to governments elsewhere.

“The royalties issue is complicated,” the minister argues, “looking at different jurisdictions and how they come up with a royalty rate. We’ll get the Mineral Resources Act done first, then we will look at the royalty regime.

“It’s easy to try to quantify us as maybe a not-high-enough-charging jurisdiction. But we have challenges. I’m also the minister of infrastructure and the lack of infrastructure here holds back a lot of mining development in the NWT.”

He adds: “I tell investors we have more mineral potential than the Ring of Fire, and I stand by that.” And Schumann is emphatic that he does not agree with Bauer’s conclusion regarding the NWT being “charitable” on mine royalties.

Picking up on the minister’s point regarding infrastructure, Vivian says mineral exploration companies tell him “this is a hell of an expensive place to work.” A little later, he adds that the lack of infrastructure is preventing any new gold mine from opening in the NWT. But Hamre queries that statement, asserting that the NWT is not the only place in the world where conditions are difficult. “Roads in much of Africa are not very good,” she says.

The minister argues that “you can’t just look at the royalties side of this.” Elaborating, he says mines pay land taxes, enter into socio-economic agreements, and sign impact benefit agreements that do not exist in many other jurisdictions. “There are a lot of other benefits that come back to northerners or the NWT through agreements with these mining companies,” he says. “It’s not just based on royalties, you can’t just focus on a percentage.”

35:25 – Diversifying the economy, and the future

Opening this segment, Hamre says mines don’t bring in many jobs for the vast sum they cost to build. She advocates an increased focus on industries like fishing or forestry. “It’s not that we shouldn’t look at mining and continue to bring mines into production, but we have to be looking at lot more at the diversification aspects.”

Tourism is another option for diversification. Schumann, who is the minister for industry, tourism and investment, says he has not yet attended a tourism conference equivalent to the Roundup conference outside the territory – he lets NWT Tourism “do their thing.” But, he adds, the federal minister is reaching out about a possible federal trip to the NWT in the near future.

Looking ahead to the NWT’s mineral exploration prospects in 2018, Vivian admits he doesn’t foresee much change ahead. Yukon, where prospects are better, has done more work and invested more in fostering exploration rather than mining, as Vivian sees it. “I know ITI is working on that and we’re trying to change that impression in the industry, but we’re not there yet,” he says.

As the show concludes, Hamre argues that the territorial government simply isn’t as committed to diversification as it is to mining. With the final word, Schumann returns to tourism as the “rising star of the Northwest Territories” and touches on improvements in agriculture, while allowing that manufacturing is proving tougher to grow. Concluding with a word on infrastructure, Schumann says there are “opportunities coming down the pipe” once forthcoming meetings with the federal government, to decide on infrastructure priorities, have taken place.