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Gold miners work in the open pit mine at Agnico-Eagle’s Meadowbank Mine facility in Meadowbank Mine, Nunavut, on Wednesday, August 24, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Gold miners work in the open pit mine at Agnico-Eagle’s Meadowbank Mine facility in Meadowbank Mine, Nunavut, on Wednesday, August 24, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

'ARCTIC CIRCLE' PANEL

The North’s resource boom: Is it prosperity or exploitation? 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: In recent years, the North has taken on a new political and economic prominence in Canada. Will this create a new era of prosperity and independence for northern communities, or does it bring a risk of exploitation and damage to communities and environments?

Michael Byers: Despite the increased media attention, Canada lags far behind other Arctic countries in seizing the opportunities presented by rising resource prices and retreating sea ice. Russia generates more than 20 per cent of its GDP from the Arctic. Norway profits from being the world leader in the high-tech field of Arctic oil and gas. Iceland has turned itself into a global tourist destination. As for Canada, consider this: Despite having the longest coastline of any of the Arctic countries, our most northern port is at Churchill – in Manitoba. Balancing economic development, local governance and environmental protection will never be easy. But serious investments in infrastructure – including a port at Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut – would be a good start.

Rob Huebert: The economics of the north have been fundamentally changing. The development of the diamond industry has already changed much of what happens in numerous aspects of the Northwest Territory. Ultimately, it is never an issue of having economic development or not, but rather a question of what you do with economic potential when you have the opportunity. After all, it is hard to think of any other part of Canada where there is serious discussion of not developing a resource (the decision to build a pipeline to carry someone else’s resources notwithstanding!). The question in all of Canada – including the North – is always over the manner in which it is developed and how to distribute the returns.

Shelagh Grant: As a historian, the excitement and hyperbole attached to the prospect of extensive mineral and fossil-fuel development in the Canadian North reminds me of the promises associated with the building of the CPR and the Yukon Gold Rush. While the potential for new economic development is indeed exciting, second sober thoughts should consider the consequences for the predominately indigenous, northern communities.

At present, the potential for this new economic growth would come from the extraction of non-renewable resources and their related support industries, which history has shown will have only a short-term and very limited benefit for indigenous people – likely with severe negative social consequences. If these new industries are Canadian-owned, the major benefits will go to the southern-based corporations. If foreign-owned, the profits will go elsewhere with the federal government benefiting from taxes and royalties. Then there is the problem of finding a sufficient source of skilled labour. Chinese companies, in particular, prefer to use their own labourers.

For anyone who has visited an open-pit mine in the north, the ecological consequences are obvious. Although oil and gas developments are less detrimental to the environment, the risks of a major oil spill could be catastrophic. Yet far too often, environmental issues gain more publicity than the more subtle social and economic questions.

Most northern communities are led to believe that new mining developments will create new job opportunities and profits for local industries. But this has not happened with the Raglan Mine on the Ungava shores of northern Quebec. This is only one example where the training programs did not achieve expected results. The underlying cause lies with centuries of inadequate educational opportunities for children raised in northern Canada’s indigenous communities, compared to Greenland and Alaska – largely due to lack of government interest or funding. As Mary Simon can better explain, the degree of catch-up required for Inuit to fully participate in the Arctic’s new economy is enormous and has been thwarted by the federal government’s continued reticence to provide sufficient funding for education.

The Raglan Mine has also prompted social problems, exploitation, and discrimination. The use of skilled workers from southern Canada (or from abroad) creates social and cultural problems – more so if foreign workers are involved. The impact of a major influx of foreign workers on small, predominately indigenous communities has been the subject of much discussion in Greenland.

In essence, the promise of benefits from major new developments has placed the cart before the horse for local communities. Should the federal government offer to transfer all the money acquired from exploratory licenses and royalties to the territorial governments and Makivik to upgrade the infrastructure needs of each community and accelerate learning opportunities for all ages, northern communities would have a far better chance of gaining benefits. Even then, the catch-up time needed will be considerable.

One cannot and should not ignore the potential economic benefits of new mineral and energy developments in northern Canada, but local communities must be a priority. A tendency to push for speedy development should be replaced with a policy of restraint to allow time for the northern communities to develop sufficient basic infrastructure and education in skilled trades to allow the inhabitants to fully participate in the new economy. Investment in mineral and fossil fuel extraction will not foster local independence on its own – investment in the needs of northerners must come first.

As in the past, Canada suffers from being responsible for an enormous territory with a small tax base and a relatively small population. As a result, successive governments since 1930 have catered to the wishes of the majority in hopes of being re-elected, rather than doing what is in the best interest of country as a whole. We have heard endless promises of how the government planned to invest in the North, but rarely (if ever) is there sufficient money to deliver on the promises after the meeting the demands of southern Canadians.

Dare I suggest that what Canada needs is a leader who can convince all Canadians that it is in their best interest to make an extraordinary investment in the infrastructure and educational opportunities in the Far North to ensure that the future prosperity of our country. Otherwise northern Canada risks becoming an abandoned sandbox after the large corporations have extracted all the treasures of any value.

Mary Simon: Yes, it is very clear as you travel in the North today that there are unprecedented resource development opportunities. All the work Inuit put into successfully negotiating land claims agreements in the last 30 years was designed to prepare us for the resource management decisions we would face. So now we are facing a different set of challenges – how we can participate in resource development in a way that contributes to the overall health of our communities and safeguards our environment. The approach must be thoughtful and precautionary rather than strictly exploitative. Shelagh brought up the example of the Raglan Mine in my home region of Nunavik. After many years of cooperative training agreements with the adjacent communities the mine has struggled to reach Inuit employment targets. There are many reasons, but in my opinion one issue undermines all resource development job predictions – and that is the low educational outcomes in our communities. Close to 60 per cent of the Inuit population of Canada is under the age of 25 and currently fewer than 25 per cent of our youth are graduating from high school – in some regions less. We have to graduate more of our children to take advantage of the many jobs that emerge from these opportunities. That’s why my focus has been on closing the gaps in our Kindergarten-to-Grade-12 systems. I believe that the greatest social policy challenge of our time in northern Canada is to improve educational outcomes for Inuit and other aboriginal peoples.

Wade Davis: In all resource issues there are no enemies, only solutions. The issue in the North as elsewhere in Canada is not mines or no mines. It’s how many mines, in what places, at what pace, at what cost to the environment – and, critically, for whose benefit. The notion that economic development, the construction of mines and the offer of industrial jobs to local people, native and non-native alike, is only for the good of all Canadians needs to be challenged.

In northern British Columbia in the traditional territory of the Tahltan First Nation, Barrick Gold over the course of 15 years extracted 400 tonnes of gold and 5000 tonnes of silver at the Eskay Creek mine, something on the order of $25-billion at today’s valuation. Altogether some $135-million went to salaries and contracts for Tahltan workers.

When Eskay shut down in 2008, the local community of Iskut remained exactly as it was before the mine opened, a community with limited infrastructure and none of the opportunities for both young and old that most Canadians take for granted. There was still no hockey rink, no swimming pool, and no place for elders to gather. There were no trust funds in place to enable students to attend university or seek technical training or that might allow small businesses to secure low-interest loans.

When I met with then-Premier Gordon Campbell I showed him a photograph of a close friend of mine from Iskut. With the permission of the family I shared what had befallen the family in the very years that Barrick operated the mine. One brother hung himself in the basement of his mother’s house. A second drowned, thirty feet from shore. Another died due to medical malpractice in Prince Rupert. A sister died on the streets of Prince George. And my friend’s only daughter was murdered in the town of Terrace. This is not to suggest that Barrick was in any way responsible for these tragedies. It is to say that the presence of industrial mines and high-paying jobs do not necessarily imply healthy and prosperous communities.

Tony Penikett: The short answer is, time will tell. For all time, the most fundamental question about northern development has been who benefits and who pays? In my Yukon youth, we used to joke that, when a mine opened, the ore went to Tokyo, the profits to New York and the taxes to Ottawa. The jobs went to Edmontonians and Vancouverites, while Yukoners got a hole in the ground which, if Ottawa gave its permission, we could use as a municipal dump.

That pattern has changed somewhat. Although it did not benefit as much as it hoped from its diamond mines, the Northwest Territories recently signed a deal with Ottawa to devolve responsibility for lands and mineral resources. That has led to a healthy public debate about creating a ’nest egg’ heritage fund to bank resources revenues for future generations. Nunavut has been far less fortunate. Despite promising devolution talks in September 2008, the federal government has so far engaged in no good-faith jurisdictional negotiations. As a result, Nunavummiut – the residents of the only province or territory with a large indigenous majority – are also the only Canadians who cannot benefit from resource revenues off public lands. While others get the economic benefits, they may only see the environmental damage and social disruption that major developments often bring.

Mary Simon has served as Canada’s first ambassador for circumpolar affairs, as president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and as lead negotiator for the creation of the Arctic Council.

Tony Penikett was NDP premier of Yukon from 1985 to 1992, and the Nunavut’s chief devolution negotiator until 2012.

Wade Davis is an anthropologist, ethnobotanist, explorer, photographer, filmmaker and author of 20 books focusing on remote and endangered cultures. He is a member of the University of British Columbia’s anthropology department.

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC. He is the author of International Law and the Arctic.

Shelagh Grant is the author of Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America and adjunct professor of Canadian studies at Trent University.

John English is the author of Ice and Water: Politics, Peoples and the Arctic Council. He holds academic positions at the University of Waterloo, the Munk School of Global Affairs and Trinity College at the University of Toronto.

Rob Huebert is associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. He has written and researched extensively on Arctic policy and defence issues.

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