Adam Fiser and Brent Dowdall are senior research associate and senior manager for research and business development, respectively, at the Conference Board of Canada.
Many of Canada's pressing socio-economic, political and environmental challenges are most intense in the North. Blessed with resource endowments, the North has much potential for economic growth, but resource development doesn't automatically lead to sustainable development. How we prepare and plan for this growth will determine whether northerners benefit.
Initiating and sustaining a broad-based response to that challenge has been a mission of the Conference Board of Canada since 2009. A recently published compendium report of the Centre for the North affirms that the obstacles are complex, but not insurmountable.
Meeting the challenge requires an acceptance of the North's unique realities. Not only are northern and southern Canada vastly different, but provincial and territorial northern regions themselves vary in geography and climate, demographics and culture, economic resources and business potential, governance structures and public services.
Like the rest of us, northerners value a secure Canadian Arctic. But the security dimensions that matter to northerners have less to do with sovereignty than with challenges citizens face to meet basic needs, and to anticipate and adapt to adversity. These concerns form the backbone of strategies to create a more resilient North. Such strategies will also do much to advance Canada's Arctic sovereignty by strengthening the communities on its frontier.
Economic forecasts show that the mining and resource development outlook for northern regions is promising but uncertain. Reaping the benefits will require foresight and planning, and they cannot be fully realized without placing the interests of northerners and aboriginal peoples at the forefront.
A majority of northerners welcome resource development when implemented sustainably. Northerners recognize that major projects have positive effects on northern economies through auxiliary industries.
Putting northern interests at the forefront of policy, business and community decision-making requires a focus on the vital factors that will lead to success. The research of the Centre for the North has found three high-priority areas: aboriginal youth, infrastructure renewal and governance.
The health and success of aboriginal young people, as former prime minister Paul Martin has said, represents a moral issue for Canada. Many northern aboriginal young people face intense life stressors and severe wellness challenges. In addition to personal hardship, they often have limited access to the education and skills development programs they need to gain employment. At the same time, northern employers across multiple sectors say they struggle to attract, develop and retain skilled workers.
The inadequate state of the region's infrastructure – this includes not just roads, airports and ports but also telecommunications, housing and other community facilities – threatens northern sustainability and prosperity. Building this infrastructure will be costly, which calls for open and creative approaches to financing that include public, private and non-profit stakeholders – both aboriginal and non-aboriginal.
Increasingly, the balance of northern governance has shifted to community, regional and aboriginal governments. While liberating for northerners, the forces shaping this third high-priority area also put increasing pressure on these governments' capacity to administer northern public services and plan for the future. Good governance is a critical factor in ensuring that all necessary stakeholders co-operate and contribute to solving the complex challenges.
The North is a region of great beauty and promise. It is also fraught with economic, environmental and social risks. Ensuring that communities can seize opportunities and manage challenges will help them prosper and grow. This will enable Canada to solidify sovereignty, improve security and realize the North's economic potential.