Report, like northern infrastructure, does not go far enough

A house of commons committee report intended to take a comprehensive look at northern infrastructure needs was released recently. The report is good as far as it goes, but like northern infrastructure, it doesn’t go nearly far enough. It identifies the need for better northern infrastructure, earmarked northern infrastructure funding, and an approach to prioritizing how to spend that money that “ought to engage with northerners, including Indigenous peoples”. It also talks of transitioning from diesel power, and of ensuring that climate change measures don’t place an excessive burden on northerners. This is all fine but stops far short of the promised comprehensive analysis.

The “Road to Nowhere” Iqaluit

The report almost entirely fails to mention that northerners don’t want infrastructure that is likely to cause irreparable harm to northern ecosystems, especially to species relied on by northern peoples. Nowhere in the report is there a recognition that infrastructure needs must be balanced against their impacts.

Consider the Bathurst caribou herd, for example. The herd numbered more than 450,000 in the 1980s and has since declined by 96%. The remnant animals are not nearly enough to supply all the people who have traditionally relied on the herd for food, and stringent hunting restrictions have been put in place. Roads, hydro developments, and even ports in the sensitive calving grounds have all been proposed. The government of the Northwest Territories draft Bathurst Caribou Range plan notes that “…the need for careful planning processes for road development will become paramount.”

Nunavut’s draft land use plan goes even further in its consideration of the impacts of infrastructure on caribou, banning mines, hydro developments, and all-weather roads in the sensitive habitat around calving grounds. Despite readily available information on the impacts of infrastructure on a species vitally important to northerners, caribou impacts don’t rate a mention in the Committee report.

The report also fails in its assessments of the impacts of infrastructure on communities. This means not only the impacts of infrastructure on wild foods relied on by northerners, but also the direct impacts of infrastructure such as roads. While roads can bring prices down and open up opportunity, they can also bring social, cultural, and health impacts that need careful planning, monitoring, and adaptive management.

Almost as important as the impacts are the lost opportunities that could be derived from infrastructure. The report notes that the new highway to Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories increased tourism two-fold. However, once the tourists arrived, they discovered that there was no restaurant in which to buy coffee, and no hotel in which they could stay. The report uses the incident as an example of a lack of infrastructure. It missed the more important conclusion that infrastructure planning needs to be better integrated to maximize local opportunity.

Overall, the report makes a case for more infrastructure for the north, but it does not make the case for the right infrastructure for the north. It is hard to disagree with the assessment of a dissenting report added at the end; “The report, while not being substantially incorrect, is woefully inadequate.” We hope and expect that the government will “go the extra mile” and remedy those inadequacies in its response to the report.

photo: Sebastian Kasten/cc