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Where the Rivers Meet: Pipelines, Participatory Resource Management, and Aboriginal-State Relations in the Northwest Territories

By Carly A. Dokis

Review By Mark Stoller

December 10, 2015

BC Studies no. 190 Summer 2016  | p. 141-142

In Where the Rivers Meet, Carly Dokis skillfully examines local responses to the Mackenzie Gas Project — a proposed natural gas pipeline through the Sahtu Region of the Northwest Territories — and how these are interpreted through state-operated environmental impact assessments and other participatory practices. By showing how Sahtu Dene participation is ultimately transformed through community hearings, Dokis depicts a review process that is incommensurable with the desires and preferences of local residents. These processes, Dokis argues, are intimately bound to questions of governmentality and the political and increasingly corporate tone of state practices that are reflected in participatory management processes. Blending established social theory with current scholarship, Dokis offers a timely and important study of how participatory practices are used to marginalize Indigenous ways of being and limit local influence in decision-making processes. 

Methodology quickly emerges as a central theme and is among the book’s strengths. Through participant observation, Dokis focuses on local attitudes at both official community hearings and in the homes and social circles in three of the five Sahtu communities. The contrast is effective at demonstrating how local knowledges and their forms of expression are distorted when seen through legalistic and non-local assumptions about the nature of the world. Care taken to tie her observations to her own experiences enables Dokis to reflect upon the bounds of scholarly research more generally. By referring often to the Berger Inquiry of the 1970s, Dokis traces historical changes that have taken place in the Sahtu since then, enabling readers to better understand how present-day decisions regarding resource development are influenced by “multiple and complex factors that are neither wholly novel nor wholly traditional” (12).

Early chapters — which will be of particular interest to readers of this journal — focus on the technocratic nature of participatory practices, and how methods used in evaluating an impact’s “significance” tilts the process in the proponent’s favour. Emphasis on how such methods blur differences between participation and consent, and de-politicize local resistance, hit upon questions at the heart of contemporary development debates. Later chapters are devoted to the broader context of land claims negotiations and the corporate and governmental practices that are mirrored in participatory management structures. References to foundational works of social theorists like Habermas and Durkheim help confirm findings of contemporary scholars of participatory and co-management regimes. I wondered, though, what specific insights Dokis drew from her experience that might complement (or complicate) these materials, and how these could inform researchers doing similar work?

Readers of BC Studies will recognize important parallels with pipeline debates in Western Canada and the book’s relevance to questions raised by fracking in northern British Columbia. Despite a strong focus on questions of law, policy, and social theory, the book’s clear organization and reflective prose will appeal to a wide readership. This is an excellent addition to an existing Northern Studies literature and should be read by scholars of anthropology, history, geography, political science, and environmental planning with research interests in participatory resource management and Indigenous governance.

Where the Rivers Meet: Pipelines, Participatory Resource Management, and Aboriginal-State Relations in the Northwest Territories
Carly A. Dokis
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015. p. 240. Bibliography, Index. BW Photos. $95.00 cloth