EDITORIAL: Paddling against the licensing current

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Although a new draft policy for operator business licences in both the Nahanni and Naats’ihch’oh national park reserves is under development and will be ready for public review this summer, it comes too late for the benefit of one operator who is looking to open up shop in Nahanni.

Jackpine Paddle’s Dan Wong said the current policy locks out NWT-based startups, such as his, from the NWT’s most famous paddling destination.

There are four licences available to operators in Nahanni, a pristine whitewater river area in the south-west corner of the territory: Nahanni River Adventures based in Whitehorse, Blackfeather which is based in Ontario and Nahanni Wild based out of Alberta with a fourth licence held in reserve for a Dehcho First Nations business.

It would make sense if that fourth licence, if not spoken for by a certain date, be made available to a company with at least some NWT connections. And with a four-per-cent increase in visitors to Nahanni – as reported by Parks Canada – for 2016-17, Wong is missing out while outside outfitters reap the benefits all while taking those dollars right out of the territory.

Wong himself used to be a guide for Blackfeather, one of the three operators that currently have a Nahanni licence. He has paddled extensively throughout the NWT and Yukon and has licences to run tours in the North Slave and the Sahtu but was told there was no possibility of getting a licence in Nahanni.

Wong, who is based in Yellowknife and has lived his entire life in the territory, said there isn’t much money spent locally from these outside outfitters other than on transportation and brief accommodations around trips.

The ideal situation would be that all outfitters operating in the Nahanni are based in the Deh Cho. If the feds are interested in local buy-in this must be the goal. Any park designation in the territory should come with the understanding that there must be benefits to the communities most affected by them, particularly Indigenous communities where jobs are scarce.

A niche business, such as whitewater paddling, requires capacity-building. The fact that the fourth licence remains unclaimed indicates that Parks Canada has failed in this regard.

The company best situated to help build capacity and develop northern-trained paddling guides and outfitters is Wong’s Jackpine Paddle.

As he puts it, he can contribute better simply through factors of “where the food is prepared, where the workforce actually comes from, how the communities are actually involved.”

It’s one thing to set aside something local use, quite another entirely to assist a business to build capacity.

Although we understand Nahanni superintendent Jon Tsetso’s statement that a draft policy for operator business licences in both Nahanni and Naats’ihch’oh national park reserves needs to be appropriate for “Indigenous co-operative management partners and consistent with sound park management practices,” there should be room for making an exception when a Northern-based company such as Jack Pine Paddle, which is ready to serve customers, looks to bring economic growth to the territory rather than take it out.

He is better placed to help Northerners than some company from Ontario.