An Action Plan for Canada’s North

Rethinking the Future…

At the heart of any strategy for the North must be a focus on a different kind of relationship between the Canadian South and the Aboriginal people of the north. This is not about rhetoric or law, it is about values, attitudes, and relationships.  Any strategy should be developed in partnership with the sovereign Aboriginal nations of the North and should reflect a commitment to sustaining the culture, concepts, language, and values of these nations. How decisions are made, how decisions are implemented, and how the benefits of those decisions are shared should reflect a 21st Century commitment by all Canadians not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Canada and its Aboriginal people should take the chance to show the world how Aboriginal people can be fully engaged as partners in decisions which vitally affect their future.

Having made a commitment to a meaningful partnership and relationship with the Aboriginal nations of the north, there are seven actions that need to be taken to secure the future of the Arctic North. Each requires new thinking and new resources, but all leverage strong committed people already living in the North and their values.

First, the Canadian Arctic needs a University which fully reflects the concerns of the north and its people. A University which will not simply try to be the Harvard of the True North, but a University of the people for the people. A University which blends traditional and contemporary learning methods; a University which recognizes and builds on the culture and traditions of the North; a University which is flexible in its programs, its methods of credit recognition, and in its teaching. A University that deals with the issues which affect the economic, social, and cultural life of the north and which seeks to earn its place in the hearts and minds of all northerners.

A University needs students and these should come from a strengthened school and college system. So as to enable the growth of the University, there will be a need to strengthen and expand the school system and focus that system not just as a “feed” to the University, but as a source of inspiration, skills, and encouragement for the young of the north. Schools make or break a society. In this case they have the chance of stimulating cultural growth and developing a momentum for a sustainable future.

Second, as the Government of Canada has recognized, the north needs a strong, focused economic development agency. This needs to focus not just on the exploitation of natural resources, but on strengthening traditional skills and industries, innovation in terms of polar transportation, energy ,and health care and the development of a skills strategy for the region. Part of this work needs to be to allocate funds for the Business Development Bank of Canada for exclusive use of northern people.

Third, the region needs a strong focus on energy self-sufficiency. Energy costs on the region are high and yet there are potential opportunities for the region to make use of emerging energy technologies – especially local nuclear power, geothermal energy, and hydrogen based transport. A plan for the region to be energy self-sufficient, by 2050, should be a major thrust of the new thinking.

Fourth, action on climate change needs to be taken by all nations with a strong emphasis on mitigating its most damaging impact on the arctic. 193 countries met in Copenhagen to discuss a successor treaty to the Kyoto Accord on Climate Change. There is a great deal of speculation that a fund will be needed to compensate India and China for slowing the growth of their emissions and supporting technology development for these countries – Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, has suggested that the fund should be $100 billion annually to 2050. No one is talking about the need to support climate change impact adjustments to the people of the Arctic. They should be.

Fifth, plans need to be developed now to look at how royalty revenues from the exploitation of the natural resources of the Arctic region can be both defined, collected, and distributed – Nunavut has 10% of Canada’s oil reserves and 20% of its natural gas reserves. Investors will need to know what the deal is and the people of the north, whose resources the investors will exploit, need to know what return they will receive for the use of their property. They should not look to Alberta for ideas, since the Government of Alberta has allowed the investors to define the rules of the game and the government itself has singularly failed to use the royalty revenues wisely. There is a chance to learn from Alberta’s mistake and create a sizeable sovereign fund aimed at supporting the social and cultural development of the north as well as its economic infrastructure.

Sixth, the people of the north should have access to the communication technologies that have become the lifeblood of modern society – broadband broadcast quality infrastructure that permits every person to be a producer of ideas, innovation, or insight and every person to be a learner, communicator, investor, educator, historian, film-maker, linguist.  Given that the North has high per capita GDP – the Northwest Territories has the highest per capital GDP of any territory or Province in Canada and the Yukon is not far behind – the people of the North are significant entrepreneurs and revenue earners who could leverage this technology for business, community, culture, and learning.

Finally, a relentless focus needs to be on the health of the people and creatures of the north. Extreme climates challenge health and animal welfare, especially when climatic conditions appear to be changing. Working to make the north the healthiest place on earth through prevention and quality care needs to be a priority. Seeking to preserve, sustain, and grow the wildlife populations of the region is important too – not just for traditional hunting, but for the well-being of the eco-system.

The Government of Canada has focused much of its northern efforts on strengthening the effectiveness of its military presence at its base in Alert on Ellsmere Island and investing in new equipment to monitor the use of the seaways. It has also invested in joint research efforts on climate change. Canada is also working with other countries to map the ocean floor, by 2013, so that title to the resource-rich seas of the Arctic can be divided up and governed peacefully. In many senses, this is catch up work – work to better position Canada when the battle for access to natural resources, especially oil, heats up. While the Government of Canada speaks of this as a Northern Strategy, it is limited in scope and focused on a few tangibles. What is needed is a comprehensive, imaginative approach to the north which is founded on a spirit of partnership with the people of the North.

By Stephen Murgatroyd -