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Clint Davis is managing director of Acasta Capital Indigenous (ACI), an Indigenous-owned subsidiary of Acasta Capital. Jessica Shadian is director of Arctic 360, a partnership with the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History, Trinity College and the Munk School of Global Affairs. Mead Treadwell is a former Lieutenant Governor of Alaska and president of Pt. Capital.

Last summer, the icebreaker Xue Long (Snow Dragon) became China's first vessel to transit the Northwest Passage, travelling from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic through the Arctic Ocean archipelago. Then, in January, China officially included the Arctic region in its massive Belt and Road Initiative, making Northern Canada, Alaska and Greenland eligible for Chinese investment in railways, roads, pipelines and utility grids.

China understands the Arctic will be part of a new global trade infrastructure system. Does North America?

According to the U.S. investment firm Guggenheim Partners, the Arctic will require close to US$1-trillion of infrastructure investment over the next decade, including transportation, telecommunications and social services to support a new era of economic opportunity from energy, fishing and mining, to defence and tourism. With fewer than one million residents, the North American Arctic has no choice but to seek outside capital for its enormous strategic and economic opportunities.

We recently convened an international forum at the University of Toronto to help North American players come to grips with what's at stake in their far north. Here's what was suggested.

  • Arctic governments and Indigenous corporations must recognize they are competing in global markets for resources, transportation and even tourism, so they must meet international cost and investment standards.
  • Investment in the North will require new partnerships to avoid the ills of colonial practices and ensure sustainability.
  • East-to-West investment (rather than North-to-South) and technological co-operation through the Arctic will promote cost sharing. Air, ship, rail and road links between Arctic hubs, and broadband connections on earth and in the sky, are more likely to happen when the Arctic works together.
  • We need to persuade global financial leaders that the North American Arctic is the world’s safest emerging market, with potentially high growth rates, strong rule of law and low currency risk.
  • Arctic mining is on the verge of a renaissance, driven in part by large expected markets for key materials for electric vehicles and storage batteries. Zinc, lithium, cobalt and graphite mines are all in some phase of development, alongside more traditional deposits of diamonds, silver, gold and rare earth elements.
  • More forms of capital will be needed, including seed money for new ventures, private equity capital for liquidity and growth, and public equity for beachhead infrastructure.

To get there, our governments need to move beyond conventional thinking of Arctic development as a social obligation.

Canada's new infrastructure bank has great promise to induce further investment, as does Canada's Trade and Transportation Corridors Initiative. Alaska is counting on some aspects of U.S. President Donald Trump's new infrastructure initiative to help bring about an Arctic port as well as ice-breaking capacity.

Some Arctic countries have recognized the investment potential. Twenty per cent of Russia's GDP, for example, comes from its Arctic region. Greenland intends to use its rare-earths and other minerals to finance complete independence from Denmark. Alaska and Iceland have capitalized on their northern mid-ocean locations to become leading air cargo and air passenger transportation hubs.

The Arctic Council and the Arctic Economic Council have several initiatives aimed at making the Arctic more economically attractive. Those include efforts to create more broadband data connections and lay out a seamless shipping route, a bit like an Arctic St. Lawrence Seaway.

While China sees the global value of the North American Arctic, it remains one of the greatest undervalued regions by its own citizens. The Canadian Arctic makes up approximately one-quarter of the circumpolar region, yet its economic production accounts for less than 2 per cent of the region's aggregate economy.

Some argue the Arctic should not be developed. Better that it be buffered from global events, the argument goes. But the Arctic can equally be a proving ground for new forms of energy. Iceland's geothermal success and Alaska's broad adoption of wind power to reduce diesel use shows it.

From the day Europeans first landed on the shores of the North American Arctic, the region became a part of global politics. Now, in the 21st century, the question is whether the United States, Canada and Greenland, in co-operation with local and global investors, will seize the opportunity to imagine, build and finance our own long view for the North American Arctic.

If we don't seize the moment, we may watch from the shoreline as the rest of the world forges ahead in making the Arctic a global trade route, linking Europe and Asia while passing us by.

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