Written by: Senator Dennis Glen Patterson
It was with a growing sense of perplexity that I read Heather Exner-Pirot’s commentary on the Senate Arctic committee’s June report on Canada’s North.
Her critique of the report — that it “makes the federal government the be-all and end-all solution to all the problems” — suggests that she hasn’t read beyond the summary of recommendations.
Her comments ignore the context provided in the body of the report.
The purpose of the committee’s study was to advance recommendations to the federal government as it prepares a new policy framework for the North. (It is worth noting that, as a Senate committee, we can only provide recommendations to the federal government.) Consequently, the federal government is the main target of our report.
However, we had no desire to sit in an Ottawa committee room to pursue this goal. It was absolutely essential to every member of the committee to hear from northern residents directly.
That’s why we spent time in Kuujjuaq, Iqaluit, Baker Lake, Cambridge Bay, Yellowknife, Inuvik and Whitehorse. We wanted to bring our committee to the citizens of these communities so we could give their voices a strong presence in Ottawa.
The product of that work — which also included extensive testimony from public servants, politicians and academics with years of experience studying the North — was our report, Northern Lights: A wake-up call for the future of Canada.
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This report, in other words, reflects the expertise and experience of those who have spent their lives living in, studying and serving the North. As we noted early on in the report, we agreed with witnesses who emphasized that the new federal framework must be driven in the North, by the North and for the North.
Indeed, to quote the report directly, we viewed the new framework as an opportunity “to move away from the one-size-fits-all approach to federal policy development” (page 21, emphasis added).
Our second recommendation addresses devolution. We believe the federal government ought to empower northern governments to assume roles in delivering federal programs to residents and to devolve federal programs and services to local, territorial and Indigenous governments (pages 21, 77 and elsewhere).
We made this recommendation precisely because northern residents want to move away from the long established colonial approach where the federal government is the be-all and end-all of Arctic governance.
Nunavut, for example, is expected to have a devolution agreement in place by 2023, which should make the territory even more independent of the federal government (page 19).
The evidence suggests this is a good thing. Yukon has benefited economically and politically since it concluded its own devolution agreement with the federal government in 2003; ever since, its GDP growth has exceeded that of some other regions in Canada (page 21).
Nevertheless, as a territory, Yukon lacks full provincial powers so it cannot use the financial tools available to provinces to raise money for large-scale investments.
This stunts all three territories’ potential for growth.
To return to Nunavut, we learned that its offshore fishing industry has grown exponentially over the past three decades, generating over $100 million in revenue. However, the Inuit-owned Arctic Fishery Alliance noted that the offshore catch is offloaded to Greenland or Newfoundland for export because of a lack of marine infrastructure (page 35).
The result? Economic leakage of millions of dollars.
So let us put to rest Exner-Pirot’s assertion that that we believe the federal government is somehow all-important. As we’ve shown, in many cases we believe the federal government should simply get out of the way.
Exner-Pirot also claims that “it is a knee-jerk reaction on all sides to say we need to invest more in the Canadian North” and says that it is already heavily subsidized.
Given that the territories lack the tools available to provinces to raise money for infrastructure investments, it is hardly surprising that the federal government subsidizes northern governments.
Nor is it surprising that these subsidies appear substantial — a dollar doesn’t go very far in the North. If a sack of flour costs $17 in Iqaluit, it is not a stretch to imagine that any serious infrastructure project would cost vastly more than its equivalent in the South.
So yes, the report calls for federal investments in infrastructure. As we heard from our witnesses, it’s a necessity — not to make the region more economically dependent on Ottawa, but, on the contrary, in order to empower the North.
Exner-Pirot’s glib assertion that we are somehow measuring northern development with southern indicators is also perplexing.
Are we using southern indicators when we say that Northerners ought to live in well-constructed homes instead of in overcrowded housing that breeds mould and respiratory illnesses like tuberculosis (page 42)?
Are we using southern indicators when we say that Northerners ought to have access to affordable, healthy food (page 39 and elsewhere)?
Are we using southern indicators when we say that Northerners ought to have access to good schools and high-speed Internet (page 45)?
She claims there’s “a lack of intellectual curiosity of what we might do differently” in the North.
That’s not at all our experience.
I live in Iqaluit, so the fate of the North is the fate of my home.
We sought out academics with a deep passion for the North and decades of experience between them.
Most importantly, we listened to residents of the North so we could get a real understanding of what needs to change to unlock the region’s true potential.
I trust these people’s expertise. I am not so willing to dismiss what they have told us.
Our report is their report. It reflects the voices of Northern peoples who seek the same control over their destiny that many in the South take for granted.
So I would give Exner-Pirot the same advice that I would give to anyone curious about the North: Read the report.