North·In Depth

What do Conservative leadership candidates have planned for the North?

The two front-runners say their northern experience has left them with a deep sense of connection to the North. But their policies focus more on sovereignty than people, says one critic.

Candidates calling for lower cost of living, more gas exports — is it enough for northerners?

From left, Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidates Derek Sloan, Erin O'Toole, Peter MacKay and Leslyn Lewis are seen at an English-language debate in Toronto in June. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

The race to lead Canada's official opposition — and try to take down Justin Trudeau's Liberals in a future election — is on. 

Federal Conservative Party members are voting over the next six weeks on a new leader, with ballots due on August 21. They will vote for who will replace Andrew Scheer, who announced he was stepping down as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada in December. The vote was scheduled for June, but is now happening by mail because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

So what are the candidates' vision for the North?

All the candidates have said they'd end Bill C-69, which requires Indigenous consultation and climate change be considered in the approval process for major resource projects. They also all oppose the federal carbon tax. 

Leslyn, O'Toole and MacKay have also called for exporting liquefied natural gas to coal-using countries and funding green technology to fight climate change — echoing the 2016 platform of Scheer.

And O'Toole and MacKay, generally considered the two front-runners, both promise they'll beef up the Arctic military presence, improve internet, support the Canadian Rangers and build more infrastructure in the North. 

Here's what each candidate had to say that set them apart.

Peter MacKay

Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate Peter MacKay is being supported by northerners like Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson and former Yukon MP Ryan Leef. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Peter MacKay first saw the North while working on supply ships in the High Arctic — an experience he says "made an indelible impression on me at a very early age." He has since clearly made inroads with northern conservatives: he's supported by a number of party members including Nunavut Sen. Dennis Patterson and former Yukon MP Ryan Leef. 

MacKay's background as former defence minister under Stephen Harper comes out in his plans, which include a louder voice at groups like the UN and Arctic Council over Arctic sovereignty. To lower the cost of living, MacKay said the Canadian Forces could deliver food and supplies to northern communities until more infrastructure is built. MacKay has also promised a long-term plan for the Arctic shipping port at Churchill, Man.

His platform includes more research on northern climates. When asked about his plan for climate change in the region, he said he wants "solid research that instructs our plans" first. 

MacKay also said that if elected prime minister, he'd build more internet infrastructure, but not with tech giant Huawei, which has been involved in northern mobile service since 2009.

"I would favour a reliable partner that wouldn't jeopardize accessing our data," he said, citing security concerns from Canada's allies. Instead, he'd review the company's role in the North and work on getting in more broadband.

Erin O'Toole

Conservative MP Erin O'Toole says he wants to build more Arctic infrastructure and calculate it as part of Canada's defence budget, to satisfy US demands for higher defence spending as part of Canada's GDP. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Like MacKay, former Royal Canadian Air Force member Erin O'Toole brings experience in Nunavut and a military perspective to his plans for the North. The Member of Parliament for Durham, Ont., O'Toole says that the federal government could list Arctic infrastructure spending as part of the country's defence budget — responding to U.S. pressure to spend more on our military.

The O'Toole platform says he will "support construction of deep-water ports in Churchill and Baffin Island." Both already have ports, though deep-water port construction in Iqaluit is already underway. An O'Toole spokesperson said he would keep the Churchill port viable, and make sure the Iqaluit port is "completed and operational."

O'Toole told CBC that his government would work with Indigenous companies on infrastructure projects in the North. And he has proposed meeting with Indigenous governments at a "national resource sharing summit... where we lock in revenue sharing agreements, right off the top."

He is also pushing to end the moratorium on offshore Arctic gas exploration, telling CBC that Trudeau "failed in the duty to consult Inuit and Indigenous people" when he signed the bilateral agreement with then U.S. president Barack Obama, which will be reviewed in 2021.

O'Toole has also made a campaign promise to give 100 per cent of resource royalties to the three territories, although that policy was voted on by the Conservative membership in 2018 and is not unique to his campaign.

Leslyn Lewis

Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis says she's not an expert in the North, but she's had several Zoom calls with people who live there. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Leslyn Lewis, a social conservative, says she is "not an expert" on the North, but she's had several Zoom calls with people who live there. She said she's been learning about the higher cost of food and housing North of 60, and what she describes as "a lot of red tape ... a lot of the businesses are just having a hard time getting things done." 

Lewis says she would clean up so-called "orphan wells" across the country. According to Cabin Radio, the Northwest Territories alone has over 1,000 abandoned wells, although the territorial regulator says most are safe as they are. 

Lewis has also spoken about systemic racism within Canada, something she says there's still misunderstanding on from other candidates.

"People understand racism in terms of individuals acting poorly towards other individuals," she said to CBC. "They don't understand systems such as the Indian Act, and the fact that First Nations women are murdered at higher rates and trafficked at higher rates than other women." 

Lewis says it's possible to meet Stephen Harper's Paris Accord climate targets while drilling for more oil and gas, by changing building codes and funding green technology. But Canada is already struggling with those targets

Derek Sloan

Conservative MP Derek Sloan's campaign is calling for more infrastructure and military spending, growing the extractive resource industry, and ending the offshore drilling moratorium. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The campaign for Derek Sloan, Hastings—Lennox and Addington MP, did not respond to a request for an interview but did take questions by email, calling for more infrastructure and military spending, growing the extractive resource industry, and, when asked, ending the offshore drilling moratorium.

CBC also asked how Sloan would fight a heating climate that is impacting northern ecosystems and lifestyles.

The campaign responded that Canada is "leading the world in preventing pollution," pivoted to Sloan's support for gun rights, then added that his "priorities for Indigenous communities" include clean drinking water and "financial transparency on reserves." 

The region North of 60 has only two reserves — where as of the 2016 census a combined total of 310 people live.

Observers hope for more northern discussion

Both MacKay and O'Toole continue a line of Conservative politicians — from John Diefenbaker to Stephen Harper —who see the North as part of a broader Canadian identity.

But for northern observers of different political stripes, the race is also a chance to put the people who live here, and their needs, on the agenda — and that hasn't yet been fully tapped. 

"It starts to build now," said former MP for the Yukon, Ryan Leef. "In an [election] campaign, the North is going to have to be far more prominent."

For Kieron Testart, a Liberal supporter in Yellowknife watching the race, it looks like the Conservative front-runners' plans focus more on polar sovereignty than on its people. 

"We need a real social covenant that comes with federal dollars," he said. "In fairness to everyone, all the parties struggle with this."


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