'Science and sovereignty' key to new Arctic research centre

Science and sovereignty will be key priorities at Canada's new Arctic research centre in Nunavut, Prime Minister Stephen Harper says.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen were given a warm welcome by this crowd when they arrived in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, on Wednesday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The new Arctic research centre in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, will give a boost to science and sovereignty, Prime Minister Stephen Harper says while announcing close to $200 million in funding.

"Today is an important day, for a reason related to both economic development and environmental protection, and that is scientific knowledge," Harper said during a speech at a high school in the Northern community Thursday. "Our government believes strongly that our activities in the Arctic must be informed by, and must add to, our scientific knowledge of the region."

The prime minister said that's why his government has invested in research projects in national parks and at Resolute Bay, and why it is building the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS).

The government plans to spend $142.4 million over the next six years on construction, equipment and start-up costs for the facility and $46.2 million over the next six years on its science and technology research program. The government said the program will be phased in starting this year, but didn't specify when.

It said the centre is expected to be fully operational in 2017 and to employ between 35 and 50 part-time and full-time employees. Beyond 2018, the government is budgeting $26.5 million per year to run the station.

Harper said "the right place to do research about the North is in the North" and that the new station has a broader purpose.

"The Canadian High Arctic Research Station will also enhance Canada's visible presence in the Arctic. In this way science and sovereignty are entwined," said Harper.

He also announced the companies picked to design the new research station, which will be located in Cambridge Bay. They are two Montreal-based architect firms: Fournier Gersovitz Moss Drolet et associés architects and NFOE et associés architectes. There will be a project office on site next summer and construction will follow, Harper said.

Harper is touting CHARS as a pivotal piece of his government's strategy for the North and he says it will help position Canada as a global leader in Arctic science and technology. Providing work, skills and experience for Northerners in the labour force is another benefit, according to the prime minister, and just building the centre is estimated to create 150 jobs.

CHARS is mandated to focus on four priority areas:

  • Resource development.
  • Exercising sovereignty.
  • Environmental stewardship and climate change.
  • Strong and healthy communities.

The Conservatives promised to build a new Arctic station back in 2007 and the government has already spent millions on its development. The 2009 budget dedicated $2 million to a feasibility study and the 2010 budget committed $18 million over four years to translating the feasibility study into a design for the station.

Eureka station forced to close

Harper's funding announcement for the new centre Thursday comes soon after another research facility had to close its doors because of a lack of funding. The Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) in Eureka, Nunavut, was Canada's northernmost research laboratory.

The station, on Ellesmere Island, had been tracking ozone depletion, air quality and climate change in the High Arctic since 2005. Its research was used to detect and analyze the largest hole in the ozone over the Arctic ever detected last year.

The Canadian Network for Detection of Atmospheric Change, an informal network of university researchers that ran the station, wasn't able to secure the $1.5-million annual funding needed to operate it year-round so operations are are winding down.

Three-quarters of its funding came from the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences and the International Polar Year program, but Harper's government stopped funding those programs and the money dried up. The scientists applied for other government grants but weren't successful.

James Drummond, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Physics and Atmospheric Science at Dalhousie University, said in an interview Thursday that his group struggled to write the proposals because they were asked about the industrial benefits of the research.

"Something that benefits the Canadian population can't be tied down to any one industry," he said. Drummond, who has worked at PEARL since the beginning, said the government has shifted its focus for research funding to programs that support industrial growth.

Harper has been emphasizing the North's economic potential during his trip and that concerns Drummond.

"The North is not only about economic activity. Do we only value the North for the amount of money we can make out of it?"

Drummond said the $26 million announced Thursday to operate CHARS could be good news but he wants more details on what exact research is going to be carried out there. He also noted that it is a large budget compared to the $1.5 million that PEARL needed to keep going full-time.

"The slight reservation I have with the program as put forward is it's a very industrial-driven program and there's more to the North than industry," he said. 

Drummond and other scientists involved with the PEARL say the new station won't be an adequate replacement and is years away from being operational in any case. PEARL was much further north in the High Arctic and was one of the world's closest centres to the North Pole, whereas Cambridge Bay is 1,300 kilometres south of Eureka. Closing PEARL means the loss of important data from the High Arctic, some of the scientists said. 

Drummond said scientists are planning on making one more trip to Eureka before the end of the year and will install as many automated machines as they can to collect data over the winter. He's hoping some funding will come through so PEARL can resume full-time operations.

Harper is on his seventh tour of the North, a trip he makes every summer. He announced the boundaries of a new national park reserve on Wednesday in the Northwest Territories and earlier in the week he visited a mine in Yukon to announce the completion of a new resource revenue sharing agreement with the territory's government.

Harper also announced Thursday that Parks Canada was launching a new effort to find the ships lost in Sir John Franklin's expedition to the Arctic in the mid-1800s.

With files from CBC News