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Why are Canadians ignoring the ‘North below the North’?

The Arctic Frontiers conference underway this week in Tromso, Norway, has attracted more than 1,000 registrants from around the Circumpolar world. The turnout is further distinguished by the impressive roster of participants, from the prime ministers of Norway and Greenland, many of the most powerful cabinet ministers responsible for Arctic affairs, and hundreds of the world's leading Arctic scientists and social scientists. Arctic Frontiers is a sign, if one were needed, that this is the age of the Arctic.

Beyond Prime Minister Stephen Harper's continued interest in the far North, Canadians certainly share the global preoccupation with the circumpolar world. There are good reasons, given climate change, boundary disputes, the Arctic's resource potential, political transitions underway across the region and the curious mix of opportunity and crisis that permeates the Arctic.

But something important is missing. The North below the North, the vast expanse of the sub-Arctic that lies in the northern reaches of the provinces, attracts no comparable interest. From Labrador through to northern British Columbia, the "forgotten North" is at once the powerhouse of the Canadian economy and one of the most marginalized and troubled parts of the country. Drawing attention to the unique challenges of the provincial North is not intended to divert attention from the serious problems affecting the sparsely populated territorial North. But the disparity in attention is more than passing strange.

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While the northern territories are home to truly impressive political transitions and empowered regional governments and indigenous peoples, the northern areas (with the important exception of northern Quebec) enjoy little political power within their provinces. The international attention granted to the political achievements of Nunavut or the Northwest Territories is not matched by external concern about the administrative isolation of Northern Manitoba or the tensions within Northern Ontario. Some of the most troubled aboriginal communities in Canada are in the provincial North – crisis-ridden Attawapiskat and Kashechewan are familiar to Canadians – as are valuable innovations in regional governance, such as the Kativik Regional Government in Quebec.

At the same time, the provincial North is one of the greatest drivers of Canadian prosperity. Labrador hosts the Voisey's Bay mine and great hydro electric potential, as do the powerful rivers of Northern Quebec. Northern Ontario has seen a rapid expansion of mining activity, with the Ring of Fire development promising multi-billion-dollar returns to the struggling provincial economy. Northern Manitoba, like Quebec, produces a great deal of electric power for the province and for export to the USA. Northern Saskatchewan uranium mines are among the most important in the world. Northern Alberta's oil sands are the most prominent resource play in the country. Northern B.C. produces an array of minerals, and considerable forest exports, and holds massive reserves of natural gas. The proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline that would connect the oil sands with West Coast ports would, if it proceeds, be a construction mega-project.

The North below the North does not exist as a single region. Each northern jurisdiction is under the political control of a provincial government, with dramatically different administrative approaches among the provinces. There are significant cities – Prince Rupert, Prince George, Fort St. John, Grande Prairie, Fort McMurray, Thompson, Thunder Bay and Goose Bay – many smaller towns and hundreds of aboriginal villages, many of them physically and economically isolated. Federal politicians from the region rarely act as a single group. The government of Canada, which has extensive programs for the territorial North, lacks a co-ordinated approach to the provincial North. The international community, which is fascinated with the Arctic, and the Canadian public, are largely uninterested in the provincial North.

There is no equivalent to the impressive international summit now underway in Tromso focusing on the issues of the North below the North. The neglect of the region, which has never held a comparable symbolic and social role in Canadian and international affairs as the Arctic, severely limits the prospects for achieving the potential of the provincial North.

Ken Coates is attending the Arctic Frontiers meeting in Tromso. He is a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and Canada Research Chair in regional innovation, Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of the Arctic. He is co-author of the Donner Prize-winning Arctic Front: Defending Canada in the Far North.

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