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The tundra near Kuujjuarapik, Quebec. An ambitious proposal to build a 7,000-kilometre trade and infrastructure corridor in Canada’s North has taken a key step forward.

CLEMENT SABOURIN/AFP/Getty Images

An ambitious proposal to build a 7,000-kilometre trade and infrastructure corridor in Canada's North has taken a key step forward.

The Northern Corridor would link Canada's people, goods and natural resources with overseas and southern markets, and boost sovereignty and development in vast swaths of the country that are economically isolated, concludes the first feasibility study of the concept. The idea was launched a year ago by the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy and Montreal's Centre for Interuniversity Research and Analysis of Organizations.

Pipelines, railways, roads, electricity and transmission lines would share the right of way that extends from the Pacific to Atlantic oceans, the Beaufort Sea to the north, as well as Hudson Bay and the St. Lawrence Seaway, connecting to existing rails, roads, pipes and ports in the southern part of Canada.

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"We think that it's got incredible potential merit in lowering trade costs between provinces and lowering trade costs in getting some of these landlocked areas access to tidewater," said G. Kent Fellows, a research associate at University of Calgary's School of Public Policy and a co-author of the feasibility study.

"Any time you decrease costs of trade you're going to have improvements in overall social and economic welfare. The idea is not just to be able to get things to market from the North and near North, but also trying to get goods and services from Southern Canada and tidewater into those areas, too. Because trade has to go both ways."

It is too soon to estimate the "multibillion-dollar" costs of the project, which would require assembling the property through negotiations with an untold number of public and private landowners, the study says. It also highlights several issues that need examining, including the engineering challenges, the business case, public-policy framework and the impact on people living in the North.

"This goes back to studies in the late 1960s looking at a northern corridor in Canada. No one's been talking about the idea more recently, but there is a precedent of trying to set up a general outline of what this looks like," Dr. Fellows said.

Canada is a country founded and bound together by transcontinental railroads, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Trans-Canada Highway. But the country has outgrown much of this infrastructure. Depending on the economic cycle, the railways and highways are congested, and producers of oil and gas face a lack of access to pipelines. Pipeline companies, meanwhile, struggle to build new links with U.S. and overseas markets amid opposition from environmental groups.

The Northern Corridor would offer a streamlined and less burdensome regulatory process to pipeline companies and others seeking to build transportation infrastructure.

"Once you've got the right of way in place, you've got the surveying done for them, you've made it a lot easier for these private sector companies to take advantage of the existing corridor and make those investments when it makes economic sense for them," Dr. Fellows said by phone.

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The proposal would also foster the growth of northern towns and cities, making living in the North more affordable by cutting transportation costs and living expenses, he said.

At the same time, climate change is opening new trade routes through northern waters, gradually pushing the grain belt north and making once-remote communities more liveable.

"We want to be poised to take advantage of this," Dr. Fellows said. "We have a lot of towns in the North and near North but a lot of them are cut off from the transportation infrastructure so they haven't been able to flourish."

The corridor would provide better links to overseas markets, which are growing and, in some cases, surpassing the United States in importance.

Asia is the biggest buyer of Canada's crops, forest products and ores, while 97 per cent of Canada's oil and gas exports are bought by the United States.

New and pending trade deals with Asia-Pacific region and Europe underscore the need for new routes, the study said, and better access to these markets strengthens Canada's ability to resolve trade disputes with the United States.

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"The Northern Corridor would also be instrumental in securing and legitimizing Canada's sovereignty over contiguous land and sea areas in the Arctic," the study said. "Our [northern] neighbours are positioning themselves for claims related to land and water territory that will inevitably be in conflict with Canada's interests. This will only intensify as access through the Northwest Passage improves for both shipping and exploration and development."

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