With the aim of spurring northern economic development and ending regulatory gridlock on resource projects, an ambitious research project announced on Thursday will examine the feasibility of constructing a major new infrastructure corridor spanning Canada's north.
The project is led by the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy and the Montreal-based Center for Interuniversity Research and Analysis of Organizations, and will look at the possibility of erecting a new network of roads, rail and pipelines, as well as investing in port infrastructure and airports. The scholars and experts enlisted by the group will consult with the federal government and the provinces and write a number of research papers over several years, likely with a budget of around $1-million.
Jack Mintz of the School of Public Policy says Canada's existing road and rail networks were constructed based on the premise of doing trade with the United States. But he adds that attempts to shift gears and build pipelines or infrastructure aimed at other markets have stuttered and encountered regulatory gridlock because there is no comprehensive national vision for how and where new infrastructure should be built.
"Today the world has changed," Prof. Mintz says. "We have growing populations and incomes in Asia, Africa and Latin America. How do we get market access for all of our exports – agriculture, mining, potash, as well as oil and gas?"
The research project envisages a northern transportation corridor that would simultaneously allow northern resource industries – from Western Canada to Quebec – to reach tidewater, and foreign markets, in a cost-effective and efficient manner. This would not only generate jobs and other economic benefits in northern communities struggling with dwindling populations, but would help increase the number of potential customers for Canada's resources – and, in addition, reduce some of the strain on Canada's congested southern transportation routes nearer to the U.S. border.
But despite a lot of rhetoric about Arctic sovereignty in Canada's Far North, there has been relatively little progress on big-ticket projects, despite occasional successes that are envisioned and championed locally but without regard for a broader, regional strategy, Prof. Mintz says. A more comprehensive vision, he suggests, could help ease some of the furious debates between industry and government, on one side, and environmental groups and First Nations communities on the other. Although the steep drop in oil prices has led to heavy financial losses and layoffs in the oil patch, Prof. Mintz says there would still be plenty of interest – and funding possibilities – from the private sector.
Prof. Mintz says they will commission research papers from academics, and hopefully First Nations groups, on a number of subjects – from funding options, to looking at how Australia, which is often compared to Canada in terms of population and resource industries, was able to build its own infrastructure. Without doing all of this, he says, Canada is bound to lose out as the slow pace of infrastructure building lags behind global economic trends – and he mentioned British Columbia's still-quite-nascent liquefied natural gas industry as one such sector.
"LNG is an example, but there are others," he says. "If we don't have the systems in place, then we can't take advantage of world markets – and other people are going to move first."