Shapeshifters, the Petrostate, and the Making of Uncertain Futures in the Canadian North

Sitting in a community hall in the Sahtu region of the central Mackenzie Valley in the Northwest Territories, a Dene grandfather and hunter spoke before the Joint Review Panel (JRP) for the Mackenzie Gas Project to tell the panel what was on his mind. “Without the animals on the land, as Aboriginal people, it’s not worth living. That’s how it is. It’s not worth living without animals. Even though you gave us lots of money, if there’s no animals then what’s the use?”

The JRP had come to the Sahtu in 2006 to hear what people had to say about the Mackenzie Gas Project (MGP), a massive natural-gas pipeline proposed to run from the Beaufort Sea to existing infrastructure in northern Alberta. This was the time of high oil and gas prices, and the MGP was seen by industry and the state as a means to bring gas to market and establish a reliable petro-economy in the territorial North. The MGP promised jobs, and while locals wanted opportunities for employment, they also worried that the emphasis on a petro-economy would leave little time to spend in the bush and would promote the proliferation of non-Dene institutions and ways of life. The comments made by the hunter and by others throughout the Sahtu reflected skepticism of a future dependent on market conditions beyond local control, as well as a serious concern for the reordering of relationships between humans and nature that a petro-economy requires.

Abandoned gas well, Sahtu Settlement Area, Northwest Territories.
Abandoned gas well, Sahtu Settlement Area, Northwest Territories. Photo by Carly Dokis.

Such a push to transport natural gas from the Canadian North was not unfamiliar. Increased interest in Arctic energy resources resulting from spikes in global oil prices during the 1970s precipitated the first proposal to build a commercial pipeline in the North. The federal government, the beneficiary of resource royalties from any oil and gas production in the Northwest Territories, offered assurances of regional economic prosperity and the development of a stable northern economy. At that time, the issue of Aboriginal title to the land had not yet been resolved, and many Indigenous people spoke out in opposition to the pipeline. In 1974 Justice Thomas Berger was appointed to lead an inquiry charged with hearing what people had to say about a northern pipeline, and he ultimately recommended that no pipeline should be built until land claims were settled.

Today, land claims have been established in much of the Mackenzie Valley, and new forms of Indigenous participation in resource governance have been institutionalized in co-management regimes. Yet the forms and techniques of participation vary substantially from the Berger days—the hearings are now technical, the process standardized, impacts made quantifiable and rendered in the language of science and neoliberalism. While the new process is intended to provide for mutual consideration of desired futures, in reality it serves as an intervention designed to resolve the problem of local opposition rather than to reconfigure how, and on what basis, decisions are made.

Many people who participated in the JRP hearings made statements similar to those vocalized at the Berger Inquiry. Yet discussions about sovereignty and the appropriate relationships between human beings and nature, which echoed so loudly during the Berger hearings, were transformed by this new process into antipolitical murmurs about costs and benefits. In part, this transformation reflects changing northern economies. However, in contrast to more overt forms of colonial violence such as the appropriation of Indigenous lands, these hearings served to sustain what George Stetson (2012) calls coloniality: the imposition of non-Indigenous representations of knowledge and relationships with nature. These impositions and structures strengthen and legitimize the actions of the Canadian state and its involvement in neoliberal capitalism, while at the same time undermining and repressing Dene realities and possibilities. They exemplify what Taiaiake Alfred and Jeff Corntassel (2011, 140) identify as “shape-shifting colonial powers,” which enact new techniques and methods of domination and erasure while insisting that Indigenous peoples were participants in the decisions that affect their lives and lands—that is, in their own dispossession and construction as capitalist subjects.

In their 2009 report, the JRP found that the adverse impacts of the MGP would not be significant and that a future with the pipeline would be better than a future without it. The report was focused on the inevitability (and predictability) of a wage economy born out of resource extraction and the need to capitalize on that future before it is too late. The impacts of the pipeline were seen to be manageable through technological means and monetary compensation; the metaphysical, ontological, and subjective interminglings of Dene people with their land were largely missing. Yet falling natural gas prices and the present economic climate means that the $16.2 billion pipeline will not be built. The shifting needs of international capitalism, in which “commodities and persons unendingly chase each other around the world” (Appadurai 1991, 194), imagine certain geographies and materialities as viable and possible futures—hot spots and cold ones—often at the cost of other ways of knowing and being. The realities of these representations point to their uncertainty as transnational forms of wealth and investment move in and out of these fields of focus: at times leaving ecological and material consequences, at other times symbolic and ontological ones.


Alfred, Taiake, and Jeff Corntassel. 2011. “Being Indigenous: Resurgences Against Contemporary Colonialism.” In Racism, Colonialism, and Indigenity in Canada, edited by Martin Cannon and Lisa Sunseri, 139–45. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Appadurai, Arjun. 1991. “Global Ethnoscapes: Notes and Queries for a Transnational Anthropology.” In Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present, edited by Richard G. Fox, 191–210. Santa Fe, N.M.: School of American Research Press.

Stetson, George. 2012. “Oil Politics and Indigenous Resistance in the Peruvian Amazon: The Rhetoric of Modernity against the Reality of Coloniality.” Journal of Environment and Development 21, no. 1: 76–97.