Northwest Territories leaders visit to build business ties

Posted: Tuesday, March 28, 2000

A year ago, Northwest Territories officials started thinking more about economic opportunities to the west.

The creation of the new Canadian province of Nunavut - out of the eastern half of their sprawling land mass - left the Northwest Territories entirely on the western side of the continent.

Now, Alaskans are looking anew at connections to the east. Proposals for a natural gas pipeline and a rail connection to the Lower 48 have picked up steam recently, raising the possibility of major projects across borders.

The result could be closer ties between Alaska and the Northwest Territories, a process that began in Juneau on Monday.

A delegation of two dozen political and business leaders from the Northwest Territories is on a whirlwind tour of Alaska.

The group met with Alaska legislators, chambers of commerce members and customs officials in Juneau, before traveling on to Anchorage Monday evening. Stops also were scheduled in Barrow and Nome.

The size of the Northwest Territories, east of the Yukon Territory and north of British Columbia and Alberta, was reduced by more than 50 percent with the creation of Nunavut as the settlement of a Native lands claim.

As Nunavut develops ties with the eastern seaboard of the United States, there's a new focus in the Northwest

Territories on economic development opportunities to the west, said Pietro de Bastiani, executive assistant to Jim Antoine, a leading member of the Legislative Assembly.

Antoine, a former premier who headed the Northwest Territories delegation, said his constituents have much in common with Alaskans.

``We're northern and isolated,'' Antoine said. ``In many cases, we feel that we're not understood, and we pay a high price for living up in the north.''

Alaska Rep. Gail Phillips, chairwoman of a House subcommittee on relations with Canada, has drafted a ``statement of intent'' that would formalize joint discussions of oil and gas exploration, transportation and tourism.

Phillips, a Homer Republican, said an Alaska legislative delegation likely will visit Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, some time during the interim.

While government-to-government contact has lapsed over the past decade, there is definitely a connection between the two areas, Phillips said. ``The similarities between our Native peoples is one big factor.''

And she noted that there are already strong ties between legislative and business leaders from Alaska and the Yukon. With even Alberta officials expressing interest in a natural gas pipeline, the trend is toward more regional cooperation, she said.

The people of the Northwest Territories have developed expertise in building ``maintainable'' community infrastructure in a northern climate, with basic services available to nearly all 35,000 residents spread out over three dozen remote communities, Antoine said.

Already, housing packages are shipped up the Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean en route to Barrow. ``We want to build on that and see where it takes us,'' Antoine said.

The Northwest Territories has abundant natural resources, including oil and a large diamond mine currently in operation. But without provincial status, the government can't collect royalties, which go instead to Ottawa, Canada's capital.

While the political struggle to become a province is underway, officials are looking for additional business opportunities.

The territories are ``ready and open for business,'' said Chamber of Commerce President Kevin Diebold.

His Alaska counterpart, Pamela La Bolle, said that there is potential for a ``synergistic'' relationship.

``We have much more in common than we ever have in differences,'' she said.

For Alaska's part, closer cooperation with the Northwest Territories becomes more attractive as a result of the major oil company shuffle on the North Slope, which is expected to jump-start the longdelayed commercialization of ample natural gas reserves there.

House Speaker Brian Porter said that a natural gas pipeline now looks likely, and there could be study of a route to the east, as to well as to an Alaska port in the south.

``It's going to happen,'' said Porter, an Anchorage Republican. ``It's a matter of where.''

Rep. Jeanette James, a North Pole Republican, also took the opportunity to drum up support for linking Alaskan and Canadian railroads in a network reaching the Lower 48.

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