OTTAWA — Canada’s northern leaders say their territories are ready to become economic contributors for Canada.
The question is whether the federal government’s approach to northern development will help them reach the promised land.
The premiers of Nunavut, Northwest Territories and Yukon each had a chance to bend Stephen Harper’s ear during the prime minister’s annual northern tour last week. In separate interviews with Postmedia News, the premiers indicated they outlined different priorities requiring federal support.
For Nunavut’s Eva Aariak, that meant pushing for more assistance on social issues like mental health, investments in much-needed infrastructure such as roads and ports, and devolution.
Devolution is the process by which the federal government grants a province or territory greater control over its own affairs, in this case Nunavut’s land and abundance of natural resources.
“There is so much happening in Nunavut in terms of development and the shipping activities that are happening more and more,” Aariak said. “The people of Nunavut need to take charge with their own land.”
For the Northwest Territories’ Bob McLeod, whose jurisdiction concluded a devolution agreement with the federal government earlier this year, housing and infrastructure were top of mind.
“We have had discussions with the federal government on housing,” McLeod said. “We have some very big concerns about the need for more housing in the Northwest Territories and we’re still talking about those things.”
Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski was focused on expanding alternative and renewable energy to help expand and diversify his territory’s booming economy.
“We feel that we as a territory can become a net contributor to this nation, and we feel strongly about that,” Pasloski said. “The missing piece right now to really unleash the next few generations of growth will be new hydro.”
Each premier’s approach was contingent on the different territory’s needs, and state of economic and social development.
“In Ottawa or Toronto, there is that misconception or effort to lump us all together,” Pasloski said. “There are some real stark contrasts in terms of economic development, social development, all of these things.”
The Harper government has outlined four areas of focus for its northern approach: protecting Canadian sovereignty; strengthening environmental safeguards; giving more power to the territories through devolution; and promoting strong, sustainable northern communities.
On this last point, the government provides about $2.5 billion in annual, unconditional funding to the three territories to pay for hospitals, schools, social services and infrastructure needs.
For McLeod and the Northwest Territories, this has meant such projects as a 140-kilometre highway from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, which the federal government likes to boast on its website “will complete Canada’s road network from coast to coast to coast.”
But while the federal government has provided support as the territories move to become more economically prosperous, it’s clear the Conservatives are banking on the private sector to do much of the heavy lifting.
This is especially true of the mining and energy industries, which the Harper government has prioritized and worked to support for years.
During his Arctic tour last week, Harper announced support for the Centre for Northern Innovation in Mining at Yukon College in Whitehorse, and new money to complete the mapping of natural resource reserves in the North.
For Pasloski, who undertook a trade mission to Europe this week to promote the Yukon’s tourism opportunities, this focus on the private sector is a perfect fit.
“We have a transmission grid that services most of the communities,” he said. “We have a road system. All of our communities have high-speed Internet. We have access to deep-water, ice-free ports, which is another thing the other territories don’t have.
“So we have in place already a lot of the building blocks that are necessary to be able to capitalize on these opportunities that the federal government talks about.”
But for Aariak, the Harper government is putting the cart before the horse by calling for private investment without first building up the necessary services.
“In order to have thriving economic development happening in the North, in Nunavut, we need infrastructure in place,” she said. “We don’t have roads leading to any other area. We don’t have ports at all.
“Sometimes I find Nunavut’s priorities and the priorities of the federal government don’t always jive.”
McLeod is somewhere in the middle, which is not surprising because the Northwest Territories is somewhere in the middle not just geographically, but also in terms of development.
“We think that with development you generate jobs and when someone has a job, a lot of these social issues go away,” he said. “Having said that, we recognize we need to help some segments of our society so they can live in dignity and so we need to find a way to do that.
“We are developing strategies to address those, and we will approach the federal government to participate with us as we go forward.”
In a report published in December, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce called for “an economic development strategy for the territories that is flexible enough to accommodate their differing realities.”
Internal National Defence documents have also raised concerns about mounds of bureaucratic red-tape and the absence of a champion for the Arctic at the federal cabinet table.
University of British Columbia professor Michael Byers, an expert on the Canadian north, said the federal government has failed to recognize and adapt its northern strategy to the three territories’ different needs.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in cabinet who truly appreciates the needs and the very considerable opportunities that would flow from much more investment and a differentiated approach that dealt with what are crisis situations in one territory and not nearly as relevant in another.”
(By Lee Berthiaume)