Canada’s Northern Corridor Concept

A truck winds its way along the Dempster Highway, an important transit corridor in the Canadian territories of Yukon and Northwest Territories. (Photo: Stefan Ehrbar/Wikimedia Commons)
An ambitious infrastructure project designed to better integrate Canada’s North could bring substantial benefits - economic and otherwise.

An ambitious infrastructure project designed to better integrate Canada’s North could bring substantial benefits—economic and otherwise.

Completed in 1885, the Canadian Pacific Railway played an influential role in the development of the nation. The railway, crossing over the rugged Canadian Shield of Northern Ontario and the daunting barrier of the Rockies, allowed settlers to expand West (and North) and for resources to flow East. Towns, hotels, and industry sprung up alongside the railway and continue to shape the Canadian landscape today. Over a century later, a team of researchers at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy and CIRANO, a Montréal based research center, are proposing a similarly ambitious project for Canada’s North.

The Canadian Northern Corridor

The fundamental idea underlying the Northern Corridor concept is to establish a multimodal right of way stretching across the Canadian territories of Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, as well as the northern portions of several provinces. This would involve governments setting aside land, providing incentives, and streamlining regulations to facilitate the construction of infrastructure linking key nodes and demand centers in the Canadian north.

As with the Canadian Pacific Railway, this could potentially take the form of new or expanded rail networks. It could also take shape as all-weather roads, pipelines, ports, or fiber links (such as the Mackenzie Valley Fibre link).

One of the benefits of this ambitious project highlighted in conversation with HNN by Jennifer Winter, an associate professor at the University of Calgary involved with the project, is that it coordinates investments to maximize their potential.

"Instead of the infrastructure being developed in a piecemeal fashion," which is a typical pattern in Canada according to Winter, "this approach is centred around having a much more in-depth look at where demand centres are and what infrastructure is needed to service them."

A map of the proposed Northern Corridor. (Illustration: Theschool/Wikimedia Commons)
A map of the proposed Northern Corridor. (Illustration: Theschool/Wikimedia Commons)

Genesis of the idea

While the most recent iteration of this idea is being spearheaded by the University of Calgary and CIRANO, the idea of developing large-scale infrastructure projects in the North is not a new one.

In the 1960s Richard Rohmer, a decorated war hero, developed the Mid-Canada concept along with a who’s who of Canadian elite. The idea was to develop a new, second Canada “on top” of the old one that would unlock the resource potential of the North, open up vast swathes of land for settlement, and protect against the existential threat of annexation by the United States.

Although this sweeping revisioning of the Canadian North did not come to pass, the government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker did initiate the "Northern Roads" program in the 1950s and 60s which, despite delays, led to the completion of the Dempster Highway in 1979—the first all-weather road to cross the Arctic Circle in Canada.

Speaking to the recent iteration of the concept, Kent Fellows, a research associate at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, emphasized in an email to HNN that the focus is not so much on the livability of the north (as was the case with the Mid-Canada concept), "but rather on institutional factors that can support more private and public investment as well as the potential socioeconomic benefits of that investment."

Using permissible corridor as a means to stimulate infrastructure development have also been successfully undertaken elsewhere. Other similar projects have been undertaken, or are being considered, in Europe, Africa, and Australia. China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative is in some ways an upscaled, internationally oriented version of these projects.

Unlike China’s initiative, however, the Northern Corridor Concept is currently focused on internal trade and no links to Alaska or Greenland are currently envisioned.

The benefits

Recent studies have highlighted the potential benefits that could be attained by improving infrastructure in Northern Canada.

One such study looked at the cost of getting goods into the Canadian territories from the southern provinces. It found that the territories could dramatically increase their GDP—by $4.7 billion CAD, or roughly 50%—by reducing the cost of transporting goods to and from the territories. The authors acknowledged that the initial costs were significant, but that the long-term benefits might justify the expenses.

Beyond economic growth at the territorial level, by improving infrastructure and lowering the cost of trade, the Northern Corridor concept also has the potential to address some of the concerns that confront people day to day.

When asked about such benefits, Winter highlighted the far-ranging implications of improving infrastructure. This could involve the lowering of energy costs to tackle energy insecurity, allowing people to work remotely with better digital infrastructure, as well as enabling better access to education or healthcare through remote consultations.

Overall Winter argues that "By lowering the cost of doing business, there is the potential to reduce the cost of living."

This could also have an important impact on the problem of food insecurity—a problem facing the territories as a whole, but in particular Nunavut where 45% of households are food insecure.

Resistance, skepticism, and engagement

Although the project is still very much in the conceptual phase, not everyone is convinced yet. Fellows, for example, notes that some have raised environmental concerns: "I think the only serious pushback we have is on environmental concerns surrounding perceived destruction of wildlife habitat."

He is quick to highlight that the project participants are taking this into account: "These are certainly legitimate concerns, and as we look further down our research plans environmental and habitat concerns play a major role in our research agenda…" and that having a coordinated plan and co-locating infrastructure will help reduce the overall infrastructure footprint.

Among the northerners they have consulted with, both Fellows and Winter note a strong enthusiasm for the project mixed with a healthy dose of skepticism. "Some say, ‘yes, this is fantastic—this is exactly what we need!' " according to Winter, "while others are fairly skeptical and point to existing infrastructure projects [in the North] and their difficulty."

Another key point underlined by Winter is the importance of involving Northerners and getting them to advise on what research is needed and what would prove useful.

"We don’t want to go down the road of too much research without appropriate consultation with the affected communities."

Next steps

The project has attracted attention at the federal level and in 2017 the Canadian Senate produced a report that spoke to the advantages of the concept and recommending that further funding be allocated to follow up with the project. Elsewhere, in an unrelated funding agreement, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada awarded a $200,000 CAD partnership development grant to support further research.

Further research will help fill information gaps. Most of the existing research has focused on macroeconomic benefits but going forward Fellows sees many other important issues that need to be addressed.

"To date, most of the research has revolved around the potential economic benefits of the corridor, but there are many other issues related to governance and public administration issues, physical engineering issues, [and] a whole host of legal questions related to inter-jurisdictional relations between federal, territorial and provincial governments."

To address these questions, the work groups at the University of Calgary and CIRANO currently have a five-year research plan scoped out.

While research on a larger national corridor is still on-going, the territorial governments have already begun work on developing portions that fall within their boundaries.

These include developing the Slave Geological Province, the Mackenzie Valley Corridor, and the Dempster Highway Corridor.