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Sustainable Prosperity for Canada’s North

Gilles Rhéaume, Vice-President, Public Policy
May 1, 2009

The North covers about 85 per cent of Canada’s landmass but accounts for less than 6 per cent of its population. Most of Canada’s natural resources—forests, metals and minerals, hydroelectric sites, oil and natural gas, and untapped resources that can be further developed—are in the North, and a warming climate is making them more accessible. Although demand for energy and commodities has tumbled during the global recession, the long-term market trend is positive for them. But developing Northern resources will increase tensions between advocates of keeping the North’s fragile ecosystems pristine and those who see socio-economic opportunities. Adding to the tension, Aboriginal communities, businesses, and federal, provincial, and territorial governments will each want their share of the benefits from economic development.

The Conference Board is launching the Centre for the North to better tap into the benefits of a more accessible North. The centre will focus on eight key elements, including environmental stewardship, security and sovereignty, economic development, transportation infrastructure, the future of Northern communities, and governance. Aboriginal issues will be integrated into the five-year research program. The Conference Board has a long record of working with Aboriginal leaders through its Council on Corporate Aboriginal Relations.

Inadequate Infrastructure

Canada’s North—including both the Arctic and the northern regions of seven provinces—currently has inadequate transportation and social infrastructure and an insufficient number of skilled workers to accommodate major economic development. Many Northern communities are not well equipped to attract, educate, and retain skilled people, especially if more are needed.

The Northwest Passage and Canada’s Northern Sovereignty

Climate change is expected to open the Northwest Passage to a longer annual shipping season, providing a quicker and less expensive way to ship goods between Asia and Europe, and between Asia and eastern North America. The Northwest Passage will increase the market potential of the port of Churchill, Manitoba, and could lead to the opening of other major seaports. The passage will also make it easier to ship materials into the Arctic and to export Northern commodities.

With these opportunities, however, Canada faces a greater challenge in controlling access to the passage for reasons related to security, sovereignty, and environmental protection. When the Arctic was frozen year round, it offered a natural defence of Canada’s Northern sovereignty. The growing interest of other “Arctic powers” in the North’s soon-to-be-accessible natural resources, and the increasing use of the Northwest Passage, will pose major risks to Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic region.

Using a roundtable format, the Centre for the North will bring together Aboriginal, business, and government leaders. The framework for the research will be developed during the first phase of the centre, in consultation with the investors and a select group of experts and leaders.

Gilles Rheaume Gilles Rhéaume
Public Policy
613-526-3090 ext. 325

Related Executive Network
Council on Corporate Aboriginal Relations