Pop quiz: if you own a piece of land, do you own whatever is buried below the surface? The answer, we learned on Thursday, is no! Matthew Spence of the Northern Projects Management Office explained to us that owning land only gives you access to “surface rights”, meaning you have the option to build your house or Swiss Chalet franchise or whatever else you’d like on it (subject to zoning bylaws), but not the ownership of anything below ground. If somebody reckons there’s gold in them thar hills – even hills for which you own the surface rights – they can lease from the government the right to exploit what lies beneath. These are the so-called “mineral rights”. Getting first dibs at leasing mineral rights for a piece of land is called “staking a claim”, most often done by a shaggy prospector from the 1800s with a name like Toothless Pete (or so I imagine). Getting permission to actually go ahead and pull the shiny stuff out the ground depends on land-use and other regulations, but the government will usually give the go-ahead within reason, earning royalties for itself while letting the miner make a handsome buck.
Yellowknife itself owes its existence as a major settlement to the discovery and development of two gold mines in the 1930s. However, in the NWT and elsewhere in Canada this system has generated controversy, particularly amongst the aboriginal communities who claim ownership over vast expanses of northern land. Mr. Spence’s agency aims to facilitate the development of projects like mines and the concomitant economic benefits. His office guides companies through the regulatory process and facilitates consultation with aboriginal and other groups to ensure that development happens transparently, predictably, and with a degree of timeliness. According to Mr. Spence, the resolution of several major land claims in the 1990s has made the project approval process much easier in some parts of the territory. Elsewhere in the NWT and Canada dispute over land ownership and rights makes development much more challenging and contentious.
The Rights Stuff
Frosty NWT is about as different as can be from the steamy jungles of central Africa. Human rights, however, probably wouldn’t top most people’s lists of major contrasts. On our fifth day in Yellowknife we met Yakub Edla, who as an employee of the NWT Human Rights Commission and erstwhile resident of Malawi has seen the contrast in rights protection between the two places. Before moving to Yellowknife Mr. Edla taught political science in his native country. There, having different views than the government can lead to imprisonment or worse. The disregard for human rights in his own country led Mr. Edla to move to the NWT, where in his current role he ensures that the rights of citizens are protected. I suppose it is a credit to Canada that, rather than arbitrary imprisonment or torture, human rights cases in the NWT more commonly involve wrongful dismissal or discrimination. Mr. Edla’s unusual provenance is also indicative of Yellowknife’s surprising diversity. According to several people we talked to, there are over 155 different nationalities represented in a town of only 20,000.
Thank You For Snowking
A big thanks to the legislative assembly staff for treating us to a delicious lunch at the Dancing Moose café, and for driving us out onto one of the NWT’s famous ice roads. Lots of places in the NWT are only accessible by airplane or by ice roads cleared across the territory’s innumerable lakes. Although 3-foot thick ice is apparently safe to drive on at moderate speeds, it was still slightly unsettling to be cruising over a lake that’s over six hundred meters deep in some places. A highlight of our excursion on the ice road was catching a glimpse of the legendary Snowking’s castle. Every year, the Snowking rebuilds his keep in the middle of Yellowknife bay, using only ice and snow as materials. While it was still under construction when we saw it, by March the castle will be host to all kinds of art, plays and concerts. Sound to me like an excuse to come back next year!