By Lloyd Dolha
A high-ranking federal bureaucrat and his wife are the focus of an independent investigation over some conflict-of-interest allegations. In mid-October the pair was charged by leaders of the Deh Cho First Nations over an apparent fruitless search for diamonds along the route of the proposed $5 billion Mackenzie Valley Pipeline.
The Deh Cho question whether Mr. Paul Bernier, the vice-president of program delivery for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, is in a conflict-of-interest because his wife staked mineral claims along the route of the proposed gas line years before the precise route was made public.
“Not once did we ever think there would be a corrupt federal official. Government is supposed to take care of people. These are the people we depend on to give us good information,” said Deh Cho Grand Chief Herb Norwegian, at a news conference on October 21.
Norwegian said that there are 12 “fishy” mineral claims staked in 1998 by Mrs. Maureen Bernier on land claimed by the Deh Cho as traditional territory.
The Deh Cho say that Mrs. Bernier’s mineral claims compromise her husband’s objectivity to assist in overseeing the process for scrutinizing the Mackenzie Valley pipeline. They charge that Mr. Bernier has breached conflict of interest guidelines by indirectly holding the NWT mineral claims.
Norwegian said that between 2000 and 2002, Paul Berier was directly involved in the plan to streamline the pipeline’s approval, negotiating with regulatory agencies and pipeline principals of the Producers Group of major oil companies.
Ongoing land claims
About 4,000 Deh Cho are involved in on-going land claims talks with the federal government over a 220,000 square kilometer area of the Northwest Territories. The Deh Cho is the only aboriginal opponent to the pipeline plan. Every other aboriginal group in the area supports the plan.
Plans for the gas line route cross into the Deh Cho’s traditional territory for 40 per cent of the pipeline’s 1,300 kilometre length.
Of the 12 claims held by Mrs. Bernier, two fall directly in the path of the proposed route that wasn’t made public until February of this year
The mineral claims have raised suspicion for years because they are on (said-to-be) worthless limestone deposits.
Mrs. Bernier’s search for diamonds involved hiring the Toronto-based High Sense Geophysics Inc. in 1996 to carry out high resolution, airborne magnetic surveys of seven parcels of land, according to documents filed in the Yellowknife office of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.
The report, written by geologist Eric Graigie in 1997, found no basis for a search for diamonds in the area.
“No obvious magnetic targets of potential economic interest were outlined by the surveys, and the base and precious metals and diamond potential of the permit area is deemed not to be high,” wrote Mr. Craigie. “Based on these results, additional work on the permits is not recommended at this time.”
Yet Mrs. Bernier registered the 12 mineral claims in October 1998, near Fort Simpson, NWT, after letting the original prospecting permits lapse.
Tribal council officials estimate that Mrs Bernier has spent almost $190,000 in her fruitless search for diamonds.
The husband-wife connection was only discovered after tribal council officials hired a private investigator to follow Mrs. Bernier.
Paul Bernier has since taken a paid leave of absence, pending the outcome of the independent investigation.
CEAA conducts investigation
In late October, Sid Gershberg, president of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, appointed well-known Montreal lawyer Vincent O’Donnell to conduct the investigation into the activities of Mr. and Mrs. Bernier.
The CEAA recently released the terms of reference for O’Donnell’s six-week investigation of conflict of interest allegations.
The Montreal lawyer will collect facts, but not make any specific recommendations.
O’Donnell will provide an assessment as to whether Mr. Bernier has followed federal law and Ottawa’s conflict of interest code.
A group of high-ranking civil servants will recommend what action, if any, will be taken.
The agency’s president, Sid Gershberg has agreed to make O’Donnell’s report public when it’s complete.
No deadline has been set for the report to be delivered, but Gershberg says he wants it as soon as possible.
The controversy of the Berniers has created uncertainty for the backers of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline.
Imperial Oil Ltd. of Toronto and the Aboriginal Pipeline Group are the lead backers of the project. They are waiting to see if the Deh Cho’s threat to halt the regulatory process if Ottawa does not allow for greater Deh Cho input.
The Deh Cho demands that the federal government immediately cancel Mrs.Bernier’s mineral claims.
They say the regulators who developed the plan for reviewing the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline have to go back and start from scratch.