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Land-Use Planning in Canada’s North—Fix It Up 

Steven Kennett, 2009–10 CIBC Scholar-in-Residence Research Co-Chair
May 10, 2010

The 2010 CIBC Scholar-in-Residence Program brings together nationally renowned academic scholars to assess the effectiveness of land-use planning in Canada’s North. Thomas Berger, Steven Kennett, and Hayden King are examining this issue from three very different perspectives. This year’s program is also a unique joint venture with the Board’s new Centre for the North. The scholars will present their views at the CIBC Scholar-in-Residence lecture, Canada’s North—What’s the Plan?, on May 12, 2010, in Whitehorse, Yukon.

Steven Kennett is an independent policy consultant based in Calgary. His contract work and publications have examined key topics related to natural resources and environmental law and policy, including integrated resource management; land-use planning; cumulative effects assessment and management; regulatory processes in Alberta, the Northwest Territories, and Yukon; renewable energy; and climate change. Policy and legislative aspects of the Government of Alberta’s Land-Use Framework have been a primary focus of his recent work.

InsideEdge: Why should Canadians in all parts of the country—not just the North—care about land-use planning in Northern Canada?

Steven Kennett: The North is important to Canadians because it combines many of the economic, environmental, social, and cultural values that define Canada and underpin our identity and quality of life.

These include tremendous renewable and non-renewable natural resources; globally significant boreal forest and Arctic ecosystems; landscapes and communities that are home to Northerners and that also have a place in the lives and imaginations of many other Canadians; and emerging systems of government that give Aboriginal people a real say in decisions that affect their lives.

Northern Canada is also facing a period of rapid transition, notably through resource development, demographic changes, and global warming effects. Land-use planning offers an opportunity to respond to those changes in order to seize new opportunities, minimize adverse effects, and identify and protect the values that are important to Northerners and other Canadians. Decisions about the future of the North that are made through land-use planning, or the failure to make those decisions, will have important implications for all of Canada.

The record of Northern planning is mixed, but in many respects it is still early days for a change of this magnitude in land and resource management.

InsideEdge: What is your key argument about land-use planning in the North?

Steven Kennett: Land-use planning is challenging, particularly in the North, but it is essential as the level of activity increases. Planning is not simply about drawing lines on a map. It is about setting and achieving objectives, identifying and living within limits of acceptable environmental and social change, and ensuring that the future is more than simply the unintended consequence of a series of incremental decisions about individual projects and activities. It is also a key component of meaningful self-determination for Northerners. And planning is a precondition for regulatory efficiency and certainty, once land uses such as resource development raise significant value conflicts and make trade-offs inevitable, whether we deal with them explicitly or not.

Despite the frustrations, there has been progress and important lessons have been learned. Now is a good time to reflect on those lessons and think creatively about new ways of framing the issues, organizing planning processes, and deploying the available tools in order to move forward. There are many good ideas in each of these areas and I sense an appetite to put those ideas into practice.

InsideEdge: Under your vision of effective land resource management in the North, what is the role of governments? What is the role of businesses? What role can Aboriginal communities play in this process?

Steven Kennett: Effective land and resource management begins with broad policy choices. Integrated regional planning translates those policies into more specific priorities and trade-offs at the landscape scale. In turn, this provides context and direction for decisions to issue resource rights, approve projects, and manage land uses. Governments, businesses, and Aboriginal communities have important roles in all stages of decision-making.

Land-use planning is a key integrative component of this process for two reasons. First, it provides the bridge between higher level policies and the operational decisions that determine what happens “on the ground.” Second, it creates a forum for discussion of alternative futures over spatial scales and time frames that are meaningful in terms of important economic, ecological, social, and cultural values. Regional planning under Northern land claim agreements is driven in important respects by values and input from Aboriginal communities, reflecting the spirit of these agreements and the reality that communities often feel the immediate consequences of land-use decisions, both positive and negative, most acutely.

Governments remain, however, the ultimate arbiters of the public interest. In exercising this function, governments are politically accountable and their decisions must comply with constitutional law, including the constitutionally protected rights of Aboriginal people. Industry and other stakeholders have a key role in providing information on the opportunities and risks associated with alternative futures, and making the case for their particular perspectives and interests.

Steven Kennett
2009–10 CIBC Scholar-in-Residence Research Co-Chair
2010 Scholar-in-Residence Lecture: Canada’s North—What’s the Plan?

Related Publications 
Territorial Outlook January 2010
True to Their Visions: An Account of 10 Successful Aboriginal Businesses

Executive Networks
Centre for the North