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Hoar frost covers the ground and short vegetation sticking above the snow on the barrens east of the northern Nunavut community of Cambridge Bay on Nov. 30, 2013. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Hoar frost covers the ground and short vegetation sticking above the snow on the barrens east of the northern Nunavut community of Cambridge Bay on Nov. 30, 2013. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

The Arctic Circle

Is spending public money on the Far North worth it? Add to ...

This is part of The North, a Globe investigation of unprecedented change, to the climate, culture and politics of Canada’s last frontier. Join the conversation with #GlobeNorth

The Globe’s Artic Circle panel of experts and leaders is discussing five key questions about Northern issues. Their responses and conversations will appear throughout the week on Globe Debate.

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Doug Saunders: What are the challenges and responsibilities for the future of northern peoples? What do we say to those who believe that Ottawa should not be subsidizing remote communities to the extent that it does?

Tony Penikett: As I understand it, the complaint is that Canadians subsidize each Nunavummiut to the tune of something like $32,000 a year. That means each Canadian contributes about $30 a year to support Nunavut. But, as is often said, since the Cold War-era relocations to Ellsemere Island, the Inuit of Nunavut have been the flagpoles of Canadian sovereignty and Arctic security.

The United States bases 25,000 armed forces personnel in Alaska at a likely cost of around $100 or more a year per American. Nunavummiut suffer the highest food, housing and energy prices in Canada -- in other words, extreme food insecurity and seriously overcrowded homes. And since Canada's military presence in the Arctic remains light on the ground, maybe Canada is getting off cheap and our flagpoles deserve more support.

Mary Simon: Can we not at least agree that Canadians, along with other northern nations, understand that distance, small populations and cultural diversity are part of our national character and part of what makes us a polar nation? I also want to say that ‘remoteness’ of Arctic communities is outdated thinking in an age of daily air travel and internet connectivity.

As the late Jose Kusugak once said, Inuit view themselves as ‘First Canadians, Canadians First,’ and we want to be full contributors to Canada. Thoughtful development of Arctic resources will attract investment in Canada, create employment for Canadians, pay royalties to governments and Inuit, and buy goods and services from the provinces.

I do think that Canada can learn from other circumpolar nations about taking a broader approach to our North, beyond its potential for resource extraction. For example, unlike Canada most of the nations represented in the Arctic Council have universities in their North because universities are viewed as one of the pillars in developing their young people as well as investing in research and polar knowledge. Inuit demographics differ from the rest of Canada and this really necessitates innovative policy approaches. Over 60 per cent of Canadian Inuit are under the age of 25, so does it not make sense for Canada to invest in education as one of our pillars of a northern strategy?

For the past 5 years I’ve been involved in an initiative to close gaps in Inuit education and increase our graduation rates, which are among the lowest in Canada. I’ve had encouraging and unexpected support from foundations and corporations which want to make a contribution to our North. But I have been unsuccessful in convincing the federal government that Canada has a responsibility to ensure that all regions of the country meet a minimum education standard, and that making added investments to education in the North should be part of a visionary northern strategy. To be clear, this is not the responsibility of the federal government alone. Northern governments, Inuit and Dene land claim organizations all need to take the long view and make an investment in educating our young people this generation’s priority.

Consider that we will be soon be celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary. We are trying to accomplish in the North in two generations what Canada has done in other regions in six generations. To the critics we say this: Canada is a polar nation. Realizing the possibilities of the Arctic region and its people will take more time and necessitates the long view that a country with 150 years of nation-building experience should understand.

Rob Huebert: One of the greatest challenges is the tyranny of distances and economics. Throughout all of Canada, you will find that the most complete services are always clustered around the larger urban centres. There will always be more educational, medical and governmental service in cities such as Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal than Flin Flon, Rimouski or Corner Brook. All receive some services but often must make their way to larger cities for complete services. But this is where the magnitude of the distances make themselves felt in the North. For most northerners there often is no road they can use to drive to a larger urban setting. Even for those who do have access to a road system, the distances are such that there is no real access unless days of travel are allowed for. The expense of air travel offers no real alternative. Thus the real issue is how you deal with very small population centres, vast distances and an almost nonexistent transportation system.

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