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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 ...

Next to Russia, we have the largest Arctic coastline in the world, with communities stretching from Labrador and Nunatsiavut to the Beaufort Sea. We have a unique opportunity  to become known for our investments in the technologies needed to adapt to the changing conditions, to gather knowledge and monitoring data from the Inuit in the communities hardest hit by climate change and  to be the hub for international scientific effort to understand the dramatic changes that are occurring. The Arctic Council has declared ‘Acting on Climate Change’ as one of its concrete actions for this next term. Leona Aglukkaq, an Inuk from Nunavut and Canada’s Minister of the Environment. is the new chair of the Arctic Council so there is an unprecedented opportunity for Canada to show real leadership on climate change initiatives.  I really hope Canada will make something of their time as Chair of the Arctic Council.


John English: Climate change will profoundly influence Arctic governance, resource extraction and sustainable human development in the Arctic. The evidence of its impact is already ubiquitous in the North. There remain many uncertainties as to its future effects, but northerners seem unanimous in stressing the need to adapt to it.

The policies of the Canadian government in international organizations, including the Arctic Council, mininize the impact of climate change; but, paradoxically, the Prime Minister and his ministers appear to accept that climate change in the Arctic will have a large and, in their view, mainly beneficial impact. Resources will become accessible, the residents will benefit, and the North and South will become more closely entwined through the supply links that will form to create this northern boom.

Sometimes this happy tale unfolds. Alberta, Canada’s bankrupt province of the 1930s, became its wealthiest after the postwar oil boom. While there is much to criticize in the social, fiscal and economic approaches of successive Alberta governments, no one can deny that residents of Alberta and Canadians in general have benefited from the boom. Perhaps this Albertan experience influences the prime minister’s vision for the north. But Alberta’s pattern is not the norm. Ever since the first Spanish gold reached Europe's shores, the most common experience is a brief boom, a flow of riches to faraway financial capitals, and environmental, social, and political crisis where the resources were extracted. Canadian history, especially in the North, provides many examples of these sad tales.

Over the last decade, resource exploitation has dominated the politics of Greenland, and the debate will and must come to the Canadian north. How can we assure that northerners benefit from the exploitation of their lands and seas? How many workers should come from the South? How should the economic rents be shared? The recent description of the largest project in the Arctic, the $750-million Baffinland iron mine, is not reassuring. The Nunavut government wanted 85 per cent of the jobs to be reserved for Inuit, but only 30 per cent are -- even though the project is much smaller than originally planned. Baffinland’s vice president explains that they must hire outsiders because “a lot of people up here don't have education or skills.” Such an answer would never be acceptable in Alberta, but the project is well under way, and Inuit are largely spectators. It’s not a promising beginning. If self-government means control of one's fate this project clearly chips away at the ability to control.

The Northwest Passage will probably not become a frequent route in this century. The recent Lloyd’s analysis of its risks and potential is sobering reading for those who are optimistic about its possibilities. But there is no doubt that climate change will increase destinational shipping, resource development, and human contact. It will, as Michael Byers says, eventually create new difficulties with weather extremes, melting permafrost and rising sea levels and, without doubt, social disruption. It is, as the question suggests, “the crucial factor.”

To its credit, the government has reinvigorated interest in the Arctic and is taking part in the debate about its future. Its early promises, however, are mostly unfulfilled, and the focus is often blurred, often by lofty but empty rhetoric about sovereignty. There are ports to build, schools and clinics to establish, and linkages to make. Above all, northerners and southerners need a compact between, on the one hand, the peoples of the North and, on the other hand, those who exploit its resources and the politicians who permit that exploitation. Minus such a compact, the future will be as bleak as an abandoned mine. The debate about “subsidization” and the claim that residents of Nunavut are “subsidized” by over $24,000 each and those of Ontario about $1,500 is profoundly misleading. The rich endowment of public goods created long ago are an implicit “subsidy” for Ontarians, not to mention the access to first-class schools, hospitals and social agencies. The Charter enshrined the principle of equalization and, as far as possible, Canadians should be in a position to take advantage of the great opportunities the nation presents.

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