David slays Goliath


The people of the Northwest Territories owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Kivallivik MLA Kevin O’Brien.

That’s because O’Brien helped stop an ill-conceived undertaking that could have cost us millions ­ the GNWT proposal to turn Rankin Inlet into a fuel supply hub for the Keewatin region

For nearly 18 months, the rookie member from Arviat played David against a political Goliath represented by the GNWT’s bureaucracy, Keewatin Central MLA John Todd, and a Keewatin-based network of political activists and business people.

O’Brien proved that an ordinary MLA can change government policy ­without which the consensus system of government cannot work.

In the end, the detailed study of the tank farm proposal done by Yellowknife consultant Peter Allen turned out to be the sling that O’Brien used to undo Goliath.

That study showed that of all the available options for supplying fuel to the Keewatin region, the GNWT’s original proposal would have cost the most money and benefited the fewest communities.

And in Yellowknife last week, when O’Brien’s Keewatin resupply committee voted unanimously to kill that scheme, Goliath turned out to be a pushover.

But Nunavut and Northwest Territories residents need to know that the Rankin tank farm controversy was about much more than whether GNWT bureaucrats know how to do simple arithmetic.

The tank farm scheme, right from the beginning, has been enveloped in a cloud of unanswered questions that the public has the right to know the answers to.

Already, people are forgetting about the connections between the Rankin Inlet tank farm proposal and two other questionable schemes, both involving the GNWT’s Department of Transportation.

One was a contract ­ worth $90 million over three years ­ to supply fuel to 14 Nunavut communities. The other was a plan to transfer ownership of the money-losing Canarctic shipping company from Ottawa to the GNWT.

How were they connected? In the fall of 1995, the GNWT decided to negotiate an untendered contract with a private Rankin Inlet firm called Tapiriit to build and lease-back the Rankin tank farm ­ a major part of a new Keewatin resupply plan worked out by the Department of Transportation.

Around the same time, on September 1, 1995, Tapiriit joined forces with Canarctic and a Greenlandic company called KNI to create a new company called Igniq Oil. By mid-October, Igniq had sprung out of nowhere to make a bid on the $90 million resupply contract.

But the people competing against Igniq Oil rightly complained when they discovered that Andrew Gamble, the GNWT’s deputy minister of transportation, was a member of Canarctic’s board of directors. With Gamble involved with one of the bidders, they questioned whether their bids would get fair consideration.

And the man at the very top of the Department of Transportation at that time was none other than Keewatin Central MLA John Todd.

As Transportation Minister, it was Todd who oversaw a new Keewatin resupply plan, and he took part in talks with Doug Young, then the federal minister of transport, on the devolution of Canarctic to the GNWT.

Not surprisingly, when many of these facts were made public, all this was greeted by a howling blizzard of protest. And the GNWT started backtracking faster than a southern tourist who has stumbled into a hungry polar bear.

Outgoing Premier Nellie Cournoyea hired a lawyer by the name of Brian Wallace to review the $90 million resupply contract. But after Wallace handed in his work, the GNWT allowed the public to see only one page of his report. We may never know what the report contains, because the rest of it is still secret.

By then, Northern Transportation Company Limited had hired a private investigator ­ former RCMP commissioner Norman Inkster ­ to snoop around and ask questions about Canarctic, Ingiq Oil, the GNWT’s abiding interest in Canarctic, the Rankin Inlet tank farm proposal, and the proposed negotiated contract with Tapiriit.

Then the GNWT awarded the contract to the Northern Transportation Company Limited, an action that silenced demands for a full public inquiry ­ the kind where white-knuckled public officials go to be grilled in public about what they know and what they did.

Few of the disturbing questions raised at that time have been answered.

But by the time that Jim Antoine, the new Transportation Minister, had asked O’Brien to head up the Keewatin resupply committee in February of 1996, the damage control was well underway.

O’Brien’s committee went on to grind out its face-saving arithmetic ­ and David toppled Goliath.

It’s refreshing to see that Todd and O’Brien have now agreed to work together for the benefit of the Keewatin region. It’s also refreshing to see that one lone MLA can still have that much influence within the consensus system of government.

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