From: Karen Marie Oseland
On June 11, a special committee of the Canadian Senate published a report making the case for greater federal investment in the country’s northern territories. The report “Northern Lights: A Wake-Up Call for the Future of Canada” concluded that the federal government has historically been negligent in providing its northern territories with the necessary support for them to develop and achieve their potential. The report further noted that only by investing more resources into developing the regions physical and human capital can the country hope to achieve greater economic prosperity in the future.
In order to provide a different perspective on the recommendations of the report, High North News recently had the opportunity to discuss the findings with Heather Exner-Pirot.
Exner-Pirot has over fifteen years of experience with indigenous and northern economic development issues. She has published over 35 peer-reviewed works and has presented numerous times at various conferences.
Exner-Pirot obtained her PhD in Political Science from the University of Calgary in 2011 and is currently a board member for the Saskatchewan First Nations Economic Development Network and the Managing Editor of the Arctic Yearbook. Our discussion focused on her views of the findings, the idea of historical neglect, and what she views as alternative solutions to what was presented in the government report.
The report divides its 30 recommendations into four themes, focusing on the social, cultural, economic, and global issues of the region.
Getting straight to the point during our discussion, Exner-Pirot stated that her fundamental problem with the report is that “it makes the federal government the be-all and end-all solution to all the problems.”
The recommendations thus seem like standard “knee jerk reactions” that have the potential for making the region more economically dependent on the federal government. Such an outcome, in the long run can end up being negative for the North as it limits the territories ability to have their own self-determination.
The Myth of Neglect
Our discussion quickly turned into discussing the issue of northern historical neglect as mentioned in the report. Exner-Pirot stated such broad statements that the report made are done more for the sake of politics than actually representing the reality on the ground.
For example, last summer, the North received approximately $20 billion for infrastructure development. The northern territories are and continue to be highly subsidized by the federal government. Exner-Pirot countered the notion of historical neglect, arguing that the level of money that is transferred from Ottawa to the region means the complete opposite.
Development she pointed out is “not solely a money issue but a competence issue.” The investments she further noted are not paired with proper policies and that is where the real failure exists.
Exner-Pirot views the problem of the perception of neglect as stemming from the fact that there has been a poor state of intellectual discussion on the subject.
“We have a very poor state of intellectual discussion. There is almost no new literature since the 90s…. a lack of intellectual curiosity of what we might do differently.”
What this creates are stale or similar solutions to the same problems.
“The Senate report reflects the paradigm we all have bought into for the last several decades, so that there was nothing new. Everybody is accepting the way it is: That the North is poor and they need infrastructure funding from the federal government, but nobody can say how much infrastructure is needed. There is no new thinking happening… For decades that hasn’t solved the problem. The money has gone up, the transfers have gone up, the infrastructure spending has gone up, and it hasn’t been enough. I don’t think there will be a time when money from Ottowa will ever be sufficient.”
The money has gone up, the transfers have gone up, the infrastructure spending has gone up, and it hasn’t been enough.
When it comes to these types of reports there can be a tendency to just be critical without offering alternative solutions. Exner-Pirot was honest, stating that she does not have the golden answer to northern development but still believes that there are other solutions to consider.
First, she wants there to be greater conversation about the economics of the region.
“I want people to start thinking if the status quo is acceptable, and if not can we start thinking of other ways than the status quo which is more money from the federal government.”
The first real question that must be asked is what is the goal? “How are we measuring northern wellbeing? Why are we measuring the North’s development with southern indicators?”
This is why it’s important to ensure that the intellectual and academic discussion is had first. It lays a foundation of what development investment should look like and doesn’t assume that southern development goals are what the North needs.
She also pointed out that “there is a huge problem in political science and democracy when there is a huge difference between what the government can spend and what they get from their citizens through taxes.”
And emphasized the importance of developing a culture that doesn’t look to the federal government “as a first responder” to meet the needs of the area.
Heather Exner-Pirot believes that wage increases can not only increase the purchasing power of the people but also allow the provincial governments to generate greater tax revenue. This increased local revenue can make local governments more accountable to their constituents. People will have a vested interest in determining how their taxes will be utilized to further develop the region.
“In a more balanced government democracy situation, politicians have to appeal to the taxpayers when they want to think differently, have different projects, and raise more money. Right now the incentive and the center of power are imbalanced.”
The hope of all of this would be to create a more balanced system, where politicians are held accountable by the people they serve in the region. The current system, she pointed out, is too imbalanced.
I want people to start thinking if the status quo is acceptable, and if not can we start thinking of other ways than the status quo which is more money from the federal government.
“The incentive for politicians right now is to go lobby Ottawa instead of their own citizens.” This just perpetuates the continual cycle of dependence. The equation has to change if the North is to truly develop.
Even with varied perspectives and differences of opinion there is no doubt that the federal government and critics like Heather Exner-Pirot both desire the North to develop and prosper.
By examining the various perspectives that exist, the hope is to be able to solve what Exner-Pirot would describe as “the billion dollar question” How can northern territories sustainability develop and prosper? These are real challenges that people must face daily, and it’s important for the sake of the territories that real intellectual discussion is had on all these issues.
About the author: Karen Marie Oseland is a Climate and Energy Analyst at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Kathmandu, Nepal, and she is also the lead writer of the Arctic Institute’s publication “Take Five”