At the literal top of the government’s 11-page list of accomplishments in Northern Canada is the creation in 2008 of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency (CanNOR).
The roughly $220-million expense of that endeavour has been dwarfed by the $4.5 billion the government has promised to spend on one new coast guard icebreaker and a few navy Arctic patrol ships.
An observer, following the cash, could be forgiven for thinking the government’s priority was, in fact, defending Arctic sovereignty. But that 11-page list tells us it’s CanNOR and it tells us why: $26 billion in potential non-renewable resource projects. The government says CanNOR’s northern project office is helping to facilitate those projects, which have the potential to create 12,000 jobs.
That number would employ about one-tenth of the total population of the North's three territories.
The North is big and barren, and only sparsely populated. (There are roughly three times as many caribou in the three territories combined as there are people). There are also, as the prime minister has pointed out, a lot of minerals.
On his northern tour last year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper described the North as a "great treasure house" and said its resources must be utilized.
“Our challenge, and our government’s commitment, is to make sure we open the doors of this great treasure house to northerners and that all northerners benefit from them,” he said.
To that end, the government has funded education and skills training programs to help northerners learn the skills to help dig up all that gold and iron ore, and mine those diamonds.
It’s all useful stuff, but not the sort of social help some northerners hope for, particularly with Nunavut's high rates of suicide.
The prime minister's point in all this is that a good job is one heck of a social program in its own right, as is an education to help get one.
“This is direct support to people including aboriginal people in this territory that will put them directly into jobs that will immediately benefit their lives,” he said on last year's tour.
The problem with new mining projects
On Wednesday, the prime minister will head to the North again. It will be his ninth annual summer tour – a good reason to take a look at the government’s northern strategy.
The mining sector is happy with the attention the prime minister is sending its way, and outright ecstatic about a series of controversial changes to the regulatory review process that promises to speed environmental reviews and government approvals.
Tom Hoefer, executive director of the NWT & Nunavut Chamber of Mines, says those changes are significant because they promote the exploration and development of new mining projects, providing a kind of stockpile of potential mines (and work for miners).
"Mining is the largest private-sector contributor to the economy both in the Northwest Territories and in Nunavut, so it’s pretty important that you build the foundation that will see more investment come, because mines don’t last forever of course,” he said.
But Hoefer says the biggest challenge is infrastructure, and associated with that, the astoundingly high cost of living —and much more needs to be done there.
“It’s not cheap to live in the North. It’s not cheap to work in the North, and one of the key elements there is the infrastructure deficit that we suffer,” he said.
“If you look at a mining company, they have to build their own roads here. They have to build their own airstrips. They have to build their own ports. They have to build their own power supply. That adds a price tag to it. Even for people who live in communities, there's a price tag to all of that.”
Nunavut’s 25 communities, for instance, are 100 per cent reliant on diesel for power generation. That fuel has to be shipped in from the South, a major and costly effort that can only be undertaken in just a few ice-free summer months.
The high cost of power and fuel, and of course transportation, raises the price of just about everything. For decades, the federal government has recognized that, in the form of a northern cost of living allowance. But Hoefer says that amount hasn’t seen a rise in 29 years. With inflation, he says, it’s actually gone down.
'If you look at the priority list, there is a neglect of human and social development. If you look at expenditure patterns the same thing is true.' - Frances Abele, professor of public policy at Carleton University
Even the miners say the government's approach to the North is failing there.
The economic challenge of people living in the North is complicated by a dearth of affordable housing. There, the government has invested $300 million since 2009, but social scientists say housing is nevertheless one part of a looming infrastructure crisis in the North.
Northern university a place to start?
Frances Abele, a professor of public policy at Carleton University in Ottawa, says northern municipalities just don’t have the tax base to sustain their operations. They can’t afford to build new water and waste-water treatment facilities, and can’t afford to fix the old and deteriorating systems they have. And then there’s health care and social development.
“If you look at the priority list, there is a neglect of human and social development. If you look at expenditure patterns, the same thing is true. There's a trickle of money being spent, but what is lacking is a serious effort to address these problems,” Abele says.
"With northern governments and especially with aboriginal government and aboriginal communities, we need to put more attention into figuring out what is a smart way to address the looming crises that are coming with demographic growth and climate change. And then money has to follow the establishment of wise plans.”
It’s all becoming more complicated now by a movement by Inuit and aboriginal northerners from living on the land, and into villages and towns. Birth rates are higher, and young people in particular now have higher expectations of health and wealth.
Abele says all this will take much more than a job at a mine. There needs to be hope and a sense of opportunity. A northern university might be a start, she says. Canada is the only country in the circumpolar world without one.
Apart from investments in housing infrastructure, the federal government has also successfully devolved part of the power and responsibility for natural resource projects to the government of the Northwest Territories. This has been something northerners have been asking for for decades. It increases the territories' tax base and allows territorial government to spend its cash on its own priorities. That, by any measure, must be considered a success.
Canada’s socially underdeveloped North is troubling for Terry Audla, head of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. The ITK represents all Inuit in Canada, no matter which province or territory they live in.
Across the North, Audla says, the social struggle for young Inuit is the same: Trying to bridge the huge cultural gap between the world of the South seen on satellite TV and the traditional practices of the people of the North.
“It’s only been been a generation since children were born in tents and igloos,” Audla says, and now they’re watching reality shows on MTV.
The disconnect is challenging, and may help explain some of the suicide, addiction and other social problems that have struck northern communities at disproportionately high rates.
Audla says the promise of jobs and economic opportunity from the development of the North’s vast of natural resources is welcome.
But making it all work will take much, much more than the government has offered.
The prime minister has used the term 'a rising tide floats all boats.'" Audla recalled.
“Well, we're in the process of building some of the boats that haven't been built, and try to make some of our boats that are in disrepair to a point where they can actually float."