Summer is in full swing, meaning Stephen Harper is in the North as part of his annual Arctic tour. We can expect more of the same: a photo-op with visiting fighter jets and coast guard, handshakes with Canadian Rangers, a community tour on an ATV, and maybe a hasty stop to one of our national parks. The messaging too will be the same: the Conservative government is committed to the North and Northerners. A quick trip in and out. Just enough time to give the appearance of being present and interested.
This is the sixth year under the Northern Strategy banner that such a trip will take place. Six years of hollow Conservative promises that have failed to bring about the changes Northerners want. Harper’s Northern Strategy was touted as a plan and vision for a region facing significant opportunities and challenges. But the strategy has not worked. In fact, it has not even materialized. From security, to environmental management, to resource development that benefits Northerners first, the Conservatives haven’t translated their annual visits into any real results. It makes you wonder which audience these trips target.
Defending Canada’s greatest northern resource
A new approach is needed. By listening to Northerners, you realize that issues of sovereignty begin at home. This is an approach that has been tirelessly advocated by the national Inuit organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. Too many families live in overcrowded homes, suffer from mental and physical illness without adequate support, and are constrained by exorbitant food prices. Making sure that our communities are healthy and strong is a core question of Canadian security and sovereignty. For Canada to properly defend its North, we must first defend the interests of the people that live there. It is often forgotten that minerals or oil and gas aren’t the North’s greatest resource – it’s Northerners themselves. In order to harness their potential, we must ensure that Northerners have access to an affordable and healthy lifestyle.
Climate change cannot be ignored
No region of Canada is more affected by climate change than the Arctic. Northern residents are coping with changing sea ice and terrain, as well as unfamiliar weather patterns. Climate change is more than just an environmental issue. Its impacts stretch to search and rescue, municipal planning and health. Not only have the Conservatives refused to address our ability to mitigate climate change, they have also failed to properly invest in adaptation responses so that Northerners can deal with its day-to-day impacts. Addressing climate change requires first admitting it is a fundamental problem, something the Conservatives have failed to do. Instead of working towards common solutions, Canada’s role in international climate negotiation meetings has been one of obstruction and isolation.
Northern resources for Northerners
The economic potential of Canada’s northern resources is well known. There is a growing demand for mineral, oil and gas development in the North, and it is clear that those resources can provide an important benefit for the Canadian economy. However, Northerners cannot be viewed as passive bystanders in deciding resource development strategies. There must be clear processes for how communities are consulted and their demands addressed if development is to take place. This means that their role is clearly defined and that benefit sharing and access to employment is more than just an expectation. Above all, the emphasis must be on sustainable development, so that environmental protection is balanced with economy opportunity.
To date, the Conservative Northern Strategy has been a failure. A new vision is required. The Prime Minister must rethink his logic and think longer term beyond short-term resource booms. Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq has now been tasked to lead initiatives in this area as Minister of the Environment, Minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, and Chair of the Arctic Council. The challenges are urgent and expectations are high. The North needs a minister who will embrace rather than ignore the fundamental issues of climate change, sustainable development and social well-being.
In her previous portfolio, Minister Aglukkaq unfortunately showed that she was happy merely to repeat talking points prepared by the Prime Minister’s Office. She wound up attacking a senior United Nations official and defending harmful Conservative tax hikes that have made affordable living in the North even harder. The closure of the National School of Dental Therapy under her watch as Health Minister has also reduced access to dental services in the North. Now as Environment Minister, the prospects for real change look bleak. Since 2008, Ms. Aglukkaq has not once mentioned climate change in the House of Commons despite the fact she represents a riding at the forefront of climate impacts.
Will Minister Aglukkaq once again be Stephen Harper’s willing partner or will she finally stand up for the North? Without change, we risk further alienating a vibrant and skilled but isolated and struggling Northern population – and compromising the future for all of Canada. Continued failure is not an option.
Thomas Mulcair is the federal NDP leader. Dennis Bevington is the MP for the Western Arctic.