Have You Heard This Old Joke?

“Igloolik 1998 01” by Chris Blanar is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

by board member Rob Huebert

A Senate Committee and a Canadian Government walk into a bar. They then bet who will come up with the better Arctic Policy. When the Senate Committee comes up with a well-researched and balanced report, the Government laughs and says “I win.” The Senate Committee says I don’t understand, where is yours? The Government says, “we never agreed that it had to be written did we…”



We are still waiting for the long-promised government policy on the Arctic. With the October election now dominating the focus of the Canadian Government it is increasingly apparent that if the document is actually released it will not be a policy document outlining the Government’s policy regarding the Arctic and instead will only be part of the Liberal party platform. There is no longer any time to implement anything that could differentiate any new Trudeau initiatives from the existing status quo. As it stands, almost all the actions that the current government has been able to do in the Arctic – such as building more Arctic Offshore Patrol Vessels – flow from policies that were initiated by the preceding Conservative Government. There of course have been important domestic actions taken, such as restoring the rail line to Churchill, investing in an Inuit suicide strategy, and the recent announcement on marine conservation in Nunavut. But this still does not justify the lack of a specific policy framework that was promised as soon as the Liberals took power.

The real problem is of course that despite how much the different parties may pretend there are huge differences between them in regards to Arctic policy there is actually little difference as to the core issues and what can be done to address them. There needs to be attention given to protecting the environment, advancing the economy, promoting northern science, protecting and promoting the interests of northern peoples – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and needing to protect northern sovereignty and security. Different governments can give topic areas different names, but the issues remain the same.

This was made clear in the recent Senate Arctic Committee Report – Northern Lights: A Wake-up call for the future of Canada. The Senate committee, with a substantially smaller budget and staff than what the government has at its command, was able to come up with an excellent re-consideration of the issues as they affect all of Canada. At the heart of the report was the recognized need to be able to respond to the needs of Northern Canadians. The Arctic has a unique environment that needs to be protected. But the Arctic is not a park. As the Berger inquiry pointed out so many years ago, the Arctic is a homeland. As such, the ability of northerners to be able to achieve a sustainable lifestyle must be the core domestic objective of any government. The Senate Report makes this crystal clear and provide an excellent path as to how this can be done.

But the question remains. How is it that the Senate is able to prepare such an thoughtful and balanced approach to the many challenges facing the Canadian north, while the government continually promised Canadians that they are going to give Canadians a much better policy than anything the folks before them ever could do – but then never quite delivering it throughout a five year term.

Winning at all costs: the bizarre position of the Trump administration on the Northwest Passage

by board member Rob Huebert


At the conclusion of the Arctic Council meeting earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo stated that Canada’s position on the Northwest Passage is “illegitimate.” This should be the definitive proof that the Trump administration cares only about winning, with no regard to its own interests, let alone those of its closest ally and economic partner – Canada.

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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