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Beefing up business

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A Yellowknife restaurant launches an eating contest to lure new customers

Story by Chris Windeyer | Photo by Pat Kane

The first thing 20-year-old Bradley Fillion does is soak his two-pound bacon cheeseburger in gravy. The second thing he does is try to jam the whole thing into his mouth as fast as humanly possible.

In eight and a half minutes, Fillion consumes the entire burger, including bun, half-pound of french fries, and drink. He’s shaking as he crams the last few morsels into his face, but the crowd is rooting him on, and he showboats a little, licking streaks of gravy off his plate, then holding it aloft like he just won Wimbledon. He’s the clear winner of the first event in the Yellowknife Competitive Eating League: his nearest competitor finishes more than seven minutes later. “I knew if I didn’t eat it as fast as humanly possible I wouldn’t have a chance,” Fillion says afterward.

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The elephant in the gold mine

Is there an economic upside to the mess under Yellowknife’s Giant Mine?

By Herb Mathisen

We’ve all been told not to worry: Those 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide under ol’ Giant Mine aren’t going anywhere. If that proves true, I suppose it’s comforting to know that this highly toxic compound won’t soon find its way into Great Slave Lake, and subsequently into the residents of Yellowknife, Ndilo and Dettah.

But the fact that this massive store of arsenic trioxide isn’t going anywhere is the problem, isn’t it? Instead of dredging it up, processing it and getting rid of it for good, it’s going to stay frozen in 15 subterranean chambers for 50 or 100 years, until our descendants find a safe way to convert it into a more stable, less dangerous chemical compound for storage. And in the meantime, the goverment will spend $900 million to keep this potential eco-disaster in check.

Does that sound like a lesson we want to pass down to our children? Granted, we will be leaving them with gigantic frozen blocks of high-grade poison to deal with. But more importantly, we’re telling them it’s okay to put off unpalatable work until some later date. (Like, say, after you die.) Tell me, how do you seriously expect to turn off your kids’ videogames, look them in the eyes and tell them to start their homework with that Giant arsenic elephant in the room?

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Wiseguy

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Yellowknife’s food truck king, Robin Wasicuna, is planning his first restaurant and he wants the place to feel like you’re sitting down for a meal in his home. But in his house, it’s his rules.

Story by Tim Edwards | Photo by Angela Gzowski

TELL A GROUP OF YELLOWKNIFERS about a restaurant that’s about to open in the city and you’ll likely be met with a round of betting on how long it’s going to last. So many eateries have come and gone here. There was the venerable Le Frolic. There was the short-lived Booyah! burger joint. There was Hee’s Garden, and also Jade Garden. Even brand-name franchises like Smitty’s, Dairy Queen and Mary Brown’s Famous Chicken and Taters have opened up north, only to close a few years later. The history of some locations—like one downtown space on Franklin Avenue, Yellowknife’s main artery—reads like the passing of generations in the Bible: The Hoist Room begat Millie’s Hoist Room, which begat The Bistro on Franklin, which begat Jose Loco’s, which begat Surly Bob’s, which begat The Cellar. If the city’s diners seem cynical, it’s for good reason. Whether mismanaged, underwhelming in food and service, or just victims of bad luck, eateries with staying power are rare beasts.

That hasn’t been a problem for Robin Wasicuna’s three-year-old food truck, Wiseguy Foods. Serving burgers topped with everything from homemade kimchi (a Korean staple made of fermented, seasoned vegetables) to peanut butter and bacon, owner and head chef Wasicuna has widened the palette of a city raised on the standard bacon cheeseburger, with maybe some mushrooms and onions if you’re feeling crazy. He’s also helped pioneer Yellowknife’s food truck scene. Now, fresh from his appearance on Food Network’s Chopped Canada, Wasicuna is planning to open a downtown restaurant that gives Yellowknifers something new (open kitchen, Prohibition-era drinks) but also meets his very exacting and none-too-flexible standards (no, sir, we will not hold the cheese).

But in a city that’s eaten far less ambitious restaurants for breakfast, can Wasicuna’s next act beat the curse of Yellowknife’s dining scene? Or will it join the other failed ventures growing foggy in the collective memory?  

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This is what the North’s first frack job looked like

Kinda anti-climactic, isn’t it? We visited ConocoPhillips’ parcel in the Canol. Here’s what we saw and heard.

Story and photo by Chris Windeyer

For such an historic event, the whole thing is profoundly anticlimactic. As the first horizontal fracking operation in NWT history gets underway, I am inside an ATCO trailer at the site of well P20, at ConocoPhillips’s Canol shale operation, attempting to shoehorn myself out of a set of mandatory fire-retardant coveralls that do not flatter my figure. 

I am okay with this, because I have already been told precisely how unexciting a fracking operation is to watch in person. 

I suppose I expected a series of loud cracks or ungodly subterranean groans as the pressurized mixture of water, sand and lubricating chemicals is shot 2,000 metres into the earth, shattering open the shale below and—ConocoPhillips hopes—releasing enough oil to prove their parcel on the west bank of the Mackenzie River is economically viable.

Earlier, I am outside regarding the assembly of trucks, klieg lights, pipes, hoses and machinery that surrounds the wellhead as though it were some kind of shrine. Which, in a sense, it is. Jim Rau, the man in charge of the actual fracking at this well, chuckles when I tell him what I’m hoping for. “You know what’s gonna happen?” he asks over the din of dozens of idling diesel engines. “The trucks are going to rev a little bit louder.” He is a portly, affable oilpatch veteran, profoundly uncomfortable when asked to give a formal presentation for the assembled media (that is, me and one CBC reporter), and supremely at ease casually explaining his job. He is an oil guy, not a media guy, but he can see that my idea of a spectacular lead has evaporated. “Sorry to disappoint,” he says, and he means it.

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Canol concerns

As one oil and gas hopeful folds, another sits patiently on the side while the “big boys” get working 

By Guy Quenneville

By the time you read this, one of the most active oil and gas companies operating in the NWT in recent years will have capped its final well, so to speak. A scheduled  June 10 meeting of shareholders for Calgary-based junior exploration company MGM Energy was likely to see the fledgling junior sell all of its shares (for $50 million) to rising producer Paramount Resources—the very company from which MGM was spun out in 2007.

It’s a sad end for MGM, one filled with considerable bitterness over how things played out, to judge by the way former president and CEO Henry Sykes is talking. “It didn’t have to end this way,” said Sykes in late April, speaking from his soon-to-be-departed office. 

MGM drilled a total of 10 wells in the NWT in the Mackenzie Delta and Central Mackenzie Delta, spending $300 million on its various projects, most of which were partnerships with other companies, with MGM acting as the operator. It also made some promising acquisitions, nabbing a 40-per cent interest in the Umiak gas field, the fourth largest onshore gas field in the Delta (265 billion cubic feet) and a potential fourth anchor field for the Mackenzie Gas Project.

But the painful collapse of the MGP dashed any hopes of bringing any gas from the Delta to production. “The dream was that the MGP would get approved in a timely fashion and we’d have a gas project,” said Sykes. “It didn’t have to be approved on the original timetable, which was 2006 and first gas in 2009. We were saying approval might be 2008. No one in their wildest dreams thought it would be 2011.”

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This is the end

Natural gas for heating will be no more in Norman Wells after Halloween 

By Darren Campbell

This fall, October 31 will represent more than the annual night when trick or treaters in Norman Wells make their rounds looking for sugar-filled goodies— it will also mark the end of the line for natural gas home heating in the community.

Imperial Oil, which owns and operates the Norman Wells oilfield that is the source of that supply, says as of that date it will no longer be able to provide natural gas to the town to heat homes. “We’ve managed to extend the deadline several times, but because of declining oil and natural gas production we’re not confident we can provide gas to the town at the maximum level for the winter of 2014-15,” says Imperial Oil spokesperson Pius Rolheiser.

Imperial currently supplies the town 17,000 cubic metres of natural gas per day to heat its homes and buildings. But come November that source will be cut off as natural gas supplies decline and Imperial must re-inject more of the gas into the oilfield to keep the reservoir’s pressure at a level where it can still produce crude oil.   

The transition has not been smooth, however.  Residents and local businesses have been forced to find new sources to heat their homes and buildings. Some residents resent how the issue has been handled and communicated by Imperial. That resentment didn’t ease up when, in the fall of 2013, a sudden price hike for natural gas used for heating sparked anger among some businesses that saw their heating bills more than double.

With October 31 getting closer, there are still businesses and residents who haven’t switched to an alternative heating source yet, but Norman Wells Mayor Gregor McGregor says everybody should have it done by the fall deadline. “I’m not nearly concerned as I was. I’ve had my home switched over and it was fairly painless,” McGregor says.

Norman Wells businessman Peter Guther doesn’t sound too put out after having had to switch all the buildings he has to another heating source, but the work was costly. He says he spent $1.4 million to convert everything from natural gas heating to other sources. For residents like Guther the choices are wood pellets, oil or propane.

The oil field’s natural gas is also the source of power for the town. Imperial Oil sells excess electricity that runs its central processing facility to the NWT Power Corp., which then sells it to customers in Norman Wells. But while Imperial can’t supply enough of the cleanest burning fossil fuel to heat the town’s buildings anymore, it has enough to
keep providing electricity—at least for now.

The purchase agreement between Imperial Oil and the power corp. runs out in September of 2015. But the power corp. says it is currently in discussions to renew the contract for another five years.

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Staying power

Time is running out for Norman Wells’ nearly century-old oil field. But the town is hardly panicking

Story by Darren Campbell | Photo by Angela Gzowski

When I call up Norman Wells businessman Peter Guther to talk about how his community will cope when the nearly century old oil field is shut down for good, he tells me that my thesis for the article is a bit off. “It’s a little early for that,” says Guther, who owns the Yamouri Inn and several other businesses in the Sahtu town. “That story is about 15 years out in my opinion.”

Guther is confident enough about the current economic climate in Norman Wells that he says he recently discussed plans to build more housing in the town with another local entrepreneur, contractor Kevin Diebold. “We’re not thinking the town is going to shut down and I don’t think there is a chill in the air,” Guther added.

He’s right. The Norman Wells field, and the economic jolt it gives the town, isn’t about to be shut down tomorrow. But that day is coming. Production at the field, which is owned and operated by Calgary-based Imperial Oil Ltd., peaked in 1992 at 35,000 barrels per day (bpd). And as anyone in the oil and gas business knows, once a field’s production peaks, it’s all downhill from there.  

Today the average daily production from the Norman Wells field is approximately 13,000 bpd. Imperial Oil is applying to the Sahtu Land and Water Board for another 10-year licence to draw water from the mighty Mackenzie River and use it to cool the equipment that processes the crude oil pumped from the field’s wells. That strongly suggests the company plans to keep the old girl producing for a while yet. But the day will come when it’s no longer producing and providing employment. What happens to Norman Wells then? 

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Keeping it cultural

How Deline learned to stop worrying and love the tourism industry

Story and photo by Tim Edwards

There’s just one community on North America’s fourth largest lake—smack dab in the middle of the NWT’s wilderness, pricey to get to and stay in. There’s no road in, most of its 600 people speak Slavey (the indigenous language) and they’re famously guarded against outside influences. Despite all this, the developers of Deline’s fledgling tourism program say it could set the bar for the territory.

Destination Deline, the brand name for a package that’s being marketed almost exclusively to wealthy North Americans, at first glance looks like a cynical marketing maneuver. But it’s more (or at least also) a solution to a complex puzzle. Deline’s leaders take their cues from the town’s elders, who take their cues from four historic Dene wise men. The teachings warn that Deline must be united and that its culture kept intact, so that the community is better prepared to face challenges like an inflow of people from around the world wanting in on the riches offered by Great Bear Lake. “In their mind, tourism was going to be hundreds of people coming and disrupting the way they lived,” says Jackie Frederick, sales manager for NWT Tourism. Her vision is much more exclusive.

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Air buds

After years of invading each other’s airspace, Canadian North and First Air could start sharing the friendly skies. What does this mean for them—and you?

By Guy Quenneville

The news may have landed after the expected time of arrival, but it sure stuck. On April 11, Canadian North and First Air confirmed they’ve entered talks to combine the two carriers into one airline, capping off years of intense speculation. But as industry-shaking as such a merger would be, the announcement was greeted with little surprise. “This is not new news,” says Rick Erikson, a Calgary-based airline consultant. “These discussions have been going on for the last five to seven years.” 

Rumours that a merger was underway last surfaced in the fall of 2012, with some reports indicating that Canadian North’s parent company, NorTerra, was looking to purchase First Air, which is owned by the Inuit of Northern Quebec (through that region’s Makivik Corporation). Makivik quickly put an end to any such mutterings, however, reaffirming its commitment to First Air and dubbing the airline an “important investment” for the Kuujjuaq-based corporation. 

Now, a year and a half later, Makivik and NorTerra are looking to share the pilot’s seat. We spoke to execs at both existing airlines plus some industry observers to help us navigate seven burning questions a merger raises. 

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THE HIGH FIBRE DIET

Arctic Fibre, Mackenzie Valley fibre, new Yukon fibre: the North can’t connect fast enough. Here’s a peek at our developing grid. By Guy Quenneville | Illustration by Jenn Lawrence

IN THE BEGINNING, Northwestel created a fibre optic line from Whitehorse to Carcross. It was the year 2000, and the event marked the birth of the North’s fibre optic network. 

Physically the line wasn’t much—just a 72-kilometre stretch of cable following the Alaska Highway from Whitehorse (Northwestel’s home) to Carcross. And subsequent Northwestel fibre builds would dwarf it in terms of length and cost: lines like those in the NWT, reaching as far east as Yellowknife; and links penetrating deeper into the Yukon, as far north as Stewart Crossing.  

But that original Whitehorse-Carcross leg remains a potent symbol—a reminder of Northwestel’s firm grip on much of the North’s telecommunications grid. 

Unless you live in Nunavut or the most remote pockets of the Yukon or the Northwest Territories, chances are your internet service comes to you, one way or another, from Northwestel. In Nunavut, where there is no fibre whatsover, Telesat is the chief backbone internet provider.

But there are twinges of a disturbance in the force.

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