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Ice patterns and icebergs are seen in Croaker Bay near Devon Island in Canada's Arctic, Friday, July 11, 2008. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Ice patterns and icebergs are seen in Croaker Bay near Devon Island in Canada's Arctic, Friday, July 11, 2008. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Arctic Circle panel

Is climate change a northern catastrophe or an Arctic opening? Add to ...

Shelagh Grant: Global warming is a scientific fact, and so far its effect on the Arctic has been more pronounced than elsewhere. While the melting permafrost and sea ice may offer new opportunities for extraction of mineral resources, oil and gas, there are also costly negative effects, such as damage to roads, buildings, landing strips and shorelines. Yet over the centuries, Inuit have shown an exceptional ability to adapt traditional practices to changing circumstances and there is nothing to suggest they will not succeed again.

With improved access to mineral and energy resources, further development is inevitable. Hence protection of the fragile environment against pollution, whether by accident or deliberate, will not only require strict regulations but the means to enforce them. The opening of the Northwest Passage will most certainly create security challenges, but so will the increased destination traffic of cargo ships and tankers moving in and out of the Arctic. This aspect has been understated, not exaggerated. The federal government’s failure to come through on its promises in a timely fashion could have dire consequences for all Canadians.

An economy based on extraction of non-renewable resources is not sustainable over the long term. Those who will gain the most benefit will be large corporations, their suppliers of material goods and services, contractors, engineers, industrial architects, shippers, along with whichever government acquires revenue from exploratory licenses, royalties and taxes. If the corporation is Canadian-owned, it stands to reason that more economic benefits will be retained in Canada than if foreign-owned. Some local inhabitants may find employment, but it will be of a menial nature unless they have sufficient education to qualify for specialized training. Although local small businesses may gain some benefit, it is very unlikely that any secondary refining or manufacturing will be carried out in the North as it is far cheaper to move raw product south.

Under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, the Inuit may have gained title to just over 350,000 square kilometres of lands, but only 10 per cent included subsurface rights. As long as there is revenue to be gained from the Crown lands, the federal government is unlikely to consider granting provincial powers to Nunavut Territory. But this does not mean that a portion of that revenue should not be transferred to the Nunavut government for urgent infrastructure needs, improved educational opportunities and medical services. Otherwise, we are left with a situation that history books a century from now may describe as deplorable – and “un-Canadian.”

Canadians are essentially faced with the necessity of completing the nation-building process begun in 1867. Previously, the frozen permafrost and sea ice did not make it viable to complete the marine transportation links to and throughout the Far North. We believed that updating communications and air routes would be sufficient. Times have changed and we must now update and expand the multiple marine highways or sea routes throughout the Arctic and sub-Arctic to complete the nation-building goals begun by John A. Macdonald and continued by Wilfrid Laurier.

Unlike a century ago, Canadians must also be prepared to invest in protection of the Arctic environment and its inhabitants. The issue is not just about the future of the North, but the future of Canada.

Michael Byers: Climate change will continue with ever more disruption, unless humanity somehow finds the will to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Arctic will not find a new equilibrium, and the benefits of increased accessibility will eventually be negated by extreme weather, sea level rise, and global economic and social dislocation.

That said, some major economic opportunities will be present this century, in terms of resource extraction within the uncontested jurisdictions of the Arctic countries, and shorter routes for shipping. In September 2013, the Nordic Orion demonstrated the potential for international cargo shipping through the Northwest Passage -- if the Canadian government invests in services and infrastructure, as the Russian government is doing along its coastline. Across northern Canada, a prospecting boom shows the mining potential that comes with a vast geography, though again, investments in services and infrastructure are needed. Multiple potential sources of energy – not just oil and gas but also tidal and wind – remain largely untapped in Canada’s Arctic.

Northern peoples have not caused climate change, but they are suffering its consequences. Economic development that involves and benefits them cannot fix this and other wrongs, but it can provide some redress. Involving northern peoples offers another benefit, in the form of centuries of acquired wisdom. The Arctic is a dangerous place, especially for southerners.

Mary Simon: I’ve never quite understood the logic behind why the Government of Canada doesn’t want to be seen as a global leader in resolving the challenges of climate change. Yes, there needs to be a balance struck between sustained economic growth and climate-change mitigation measures, but what I don’t see is strategic investments that would put Canada at the forefront of learning from what is already happening in dramatic fashion in our Arctic communities.

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