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The Mackenzie Valley Pipeline

Abraham Okpik
Aboriginal people were lobbying all over about land claims. My own group in the Mackenzie Valley was called COPE, which stands for the Committee for Original People’s Entitlement. … When I moved to Yellowknife to start working, I didn’t know too much about the proposal. I got some files, and I started getting all the information for myself. I had my own little typewriter and a tape recorder and my own radio. I learned how to make a tape and put news together in ten minutes. But my specialty, when I was really working, was reporting in Inuvialuktun to the Inuit in the Mackenzie Valley area. … I remember when I started reporting about this new pipeline. I stated, “This is a forty-eight inch pipeline! This gas is coming through to the surface with pressure!” … From Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, across the Arctic coast and through the Mackenzie; tap in some more gas from there, gas from the ground, and then send it up to the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, all the way down to the depot outside of Edmonton and Calgary. And then from there, pipe it down to the United States! …

When we sat in a community, all kinds of people spoke from the native point of view. When I first started listening, I heard, “We don’t want industrial development before land claims.” … They were saying, “This is our mother earth. It looked after us.”
As Abe was considered to be well-versed in different Inuktitut dialects, he was asked to prepare reports about the events surrounding the construction of the pipeline. As a reporter, he also had to find a means of explaining the scale and the scope of the project to the native population. To explain the concept of “trillions of cubic feet” of gas, for example, he said, “When you talk about trillions, imagine six sand hill cranes and maybe six caribou, and try to count all the feathers and the hair on their body if you have time! You will never get near. A trillion is so huge!”

To explain the size of Toronto, which had a population at that time of 2.5 million, Abe compared it to the area “from Aklavik down to Nelson Island, across the Mackenzie and up to Inuvik.” He described people using the subway system, likening them to harp seals which dive underwater to surface further away. It was hard for the population of the North to fathom the buildings and the number of people living in the city.

Abe felt that it was important for him to communicate the money involved in the pipeline project. Ornithologists and other wildlife and botany experts were consulted about the impact the construction would have on habitats. Formal hearings were held, and a commission travelled widely across Northern communities to consult with the inhabitants. Aboriginal groups opposed the project, and didn’t get any land claims signed until 1979.