Canada’s North could be Trudeau’s policy sweet spot — here’s why

On infrastructure, reconciliation, climate change and foreign policy,
Canada’s Liberal government is well-placed to make a real impact in the Arctic. 

By: /
24 February, 2016
A Canadian flag is pictured on Frobisher Bay in Iqaluit, Nunavut February 23, 2012. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
Thomas Axworthy
By: Thomas Axworthy
Public Policy Chair, Massey College

The first one hundred days of the new Trudeau government have been heady. The prime minister burst out of the gate in a whirlwind of international activity, ministers received detailed mandate letters on how to implement the Liberal election platform, announcements have been made almost daily, and there is a very distinct change in style and tone from the previous government. The honeymoon has been prolonged and, if the polls are to be believed, it is not over yet. 

While political rhetoric can soar, governing, to use the metaphor of Max Weber, is mostly the steady boring of hard wood. Speeches are poetry but implementation is prose. This is where the Arctic comes in: during the election campaign and the government’s first one hundred days, four distinct themes or priorities have emerged – economic progress through infrastructure investment; reconciliation with First Nations, Metis and the Inuit; climate change; and multilateral engagement in foreign policy. These four areas converge especially well in the North, with the region having the potential to become the sweet spot of implementation of the Liberal government’s agenda. Linking these four themes together in a coordinated action plan for the Arctic could demonstrate to skeptics that the Trudeau administration is as serious and skilled at governing as it is at communicating.

In the 2015 campaign, the Liberals released a northern specific platform emphasizing climate change, affordable housing and additional investment in the Nutrition North food subsidy program. Beyond these specifics, the general themes articulated by Trudeau were tailor made for northern public opinion. In 2015, The Gordon Foundation released Rethinking the Top of the World: Arctic Public Opinion Survey, Vol. 2, a survey of attitudes across the circumpolar Arctic, with Canadian sample sizes sufficiently large to allow for the comparison of both northern and southern Canadian public opinion. When asked unprompted to identify the greatest threat to the Arctic, 37 percent of northerners mentioned climate change, with another 10 percent referring to environmental degradation, ice caps melting, etc. Not surprisingly, 86 percent of northerners wanted strong policies to combat climate change. Infrastructure needs were as top of the line in priority as the environment, with 86 percent of the sample emphasizing the importance of infrastructure but with only 28 percent of respondents feeling that current infrastructure met their needs. In defining security, 90 percent of northerners rated environmental security as crucial in protecting the Canadian Arctic, and national or military security lowest at 45 percent. Northerners also favoured the co-operative multipolar approach of the Arctic Council, with only 36 percent in favour of suspending co-operation with Russia because of the conflict in Ukraine.

Given how in sync the Liberal campaign was with northern perceptions and priorities, it is not surprising that the Liberals swept all three seats in the North, with impressive results of 54 percent of the vote in the Yukon, 48 percent in the Northwest Territories, and 47 percent in Nunavut – support far above the Liberal Party’s percentage of the vote nationally.

Infrastructure Investment

But with values, support and election results in sync, now is the time for the Trudeau government to connect the dots. On infrastructure, the prime minister has promised $60 billion of investment across Canada over a 10-year period, but only $17.4 billion is promised in the first four years of the mandate. With the economy slowing, both the total amount of infrastructure spending and the initial moderate pace should be greatly accelerated.

The North has especially huge infrastructure needs, as outlined in a January 2016 report by the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board. Canada’s North makes up 25 percent of the global Arctic and 40 percent of Canada’s land mass. Because of the distance and the harsh environment, the cost of doing business is significantly higher in the North than in the South. Mines cost two- to three-times more to bring into production than similar projects in the South. One large reason for this is the lack of roads, ports, energy grids and broadband internet access so vital for the digital economy. Water and sewage infrastructure is needed to accommodate populations while preserving the North’s as yet unspoiled water resources. But the North also has a significant advantage: most of the territory is covered by land claims settlements, and as part of these settlements there are 20 economic development corporations (EDCs), the for-profit arms of land claims organizations. The Makivik Corporation for the Inuit of Nunavik, for example, has assets of $180 million invested in airlines, rock crushing companies, etc. There is, therefore, significant Indigenous capital to join in the effort to close the North infrastructure gap.

“Canada is the only Arctic nation without a university in its North and there is currently no northern-based think tank.”

The National Aboriginal Economic Development Board report on the North estimates that every dollar spent in infrastructure returns $11 in economic activity, and $11 in additional taxes. The report highlighted that 40 percent of Nunavut citizens are not living in suitable housing, affirming that the Liberal choice of housing in their platform was wise. The Liberals also pledged increases in the northern residents’ tax deduction to help with the higher cost of living in the North. The same rationale applies to business: the next budget should not only implement the personal deduction but also include enhanced tax credits for business with North-specific investments.

The North also suffers from a gap in intellectual infrastructure. As is well known, Canada is the only Arctic nation without a university in its North. To create one will be an arduous process involving negotiations with the three territories, but it is a possibility if built on the strength of the existing community college system. An immediate start to building intellectual infrastructure could be made by assisting northerners to develop their own made-in-the-North policy expertise. There is currently no northern-based think tank. A generation ago, there were few think tanks in Canada as a whole, until the federal government, provinces and the private sector contributed funding to create the Institute for Research in Public Policy, an independent not-for-profit organization. Today we need a similar effort to jointly fund and create the Institute for Northern Public Policy.


Justin Trudeau has recognized that the great unfinished business of Confederation is to develop a true partnership with Canada’s indigenous peoples. Achieving the aim of reconciliation with Canada’s aboriginals could be as defining for Trudeau as French-English reconciliation was for his father. The North could be an incubator for such a change: the highest proportion of indigenous populations are in Nunavut with 86.3 percent, the Northwest Territories at 51.9 percent, and Yukon with 23.1 percent. Jointly planning, financing and building infrastructure with aboriginal self-governments is critical to any program on that northern front, a point also emphasized more generally for Canada in a recent study published by the Public Policy Forum, Improving access to capital for Canada’s First Nation communities.

There is also unfinished business to attend to in ensuring that the federal government at last fulfills the commitments it has made in land claims negotiations, a point made strongly by Thomas Berger in his 2005 report on the implementation of the Nunavut land claims agreement. Nunavut is the only one of Canada’s three territories without a devolution pact. Yukon was the first to take control of its own land and resources, followed by the Northwest Territories in 2015 – one of the significant contributions of the Harper government to the North’s evolution. Nunavut first needs the infrastructure to make resource development possible, but then it must have a new legal agreement with Ottawa giving it control over its own development so that it can benefit from royalties in the future. As Tony Penikett, a former negotiator for Nunavut argued in a public lecture on devolution, Ottawa must stop going through the motions and negotiate seriously. National reconciliation should begin by giving Canada’s only indigenous government equal status with the other territories.

Climate Change 

The Washington Post recently ran a story headlined, “Scientists are floored by what’s happening in the Arctic right now,” referring to new data suggesting that 2015 was the hottest year ever recorded. The trend has continued into 2016; in the Arctic, January 2016 saw the greatest departure from average temperatures of any month on record, with temperatures more than four degrees Celsius greater than the 1951 to 1980 average in the region. This unprecedented heat wave was accompanied by a new low for Arctic sea ice, over 400,000 square miles below average for the month, and is one more indication that the Arctic is the epicentre of global climate change. 

As University of British Columbia scholar Candis Callison writes in How Climate Change Comes to Matter, such shocking figures create “debates not only as struggles over complex and evolving matters of fact but also debates about meaning, ethics, and morality.” Sheila Watt-Cloutier, former head of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, certainly broadened the debate by famously framing  climate change as “the right to be cold.” Following her lead, the Arctic Athabaskan Council filed a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights requesting a declaration that Canada is undermining the rights of Athabascan peoples by poorly regulating emissions of black carbon or soot. Slowing the rate of global warming is a framework issue for the Trudeau government. Nowhere is it more evident than in Canada’s North: one place to start is to recognize the validity of the Athabascan petition and make black carbon or soot reduction a central objective of Canadian policy. Canada’s North runs on diesel and what is required in the short term is a crash program to retrofit diesel engines to make them more efficient, as California has done, and longer term to move to a more sustainable energy future.

On climate change and environmental sustainability, the world can also learn from the North. Robert Sandford in Storm Warning cogently argues that the impact of climate change is most often felt through changes in the water cycle with severe droughts or flooding. According to the French Water Partnership, roughly 90 percent of weather disorders on the planet are related to water.

“Canada will always be a bit foreign policy player in the Middle East. In the Arctic, Canada can be a major force.”

One of the conclusions of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference is that water is a connector, not a sector, because climate change manifests itself both powerfully and disastrously in its impact on water. This fact was recognized years ago by the Government of the Northwest Territories in their “Northern Voices, Northern Waters” policy on water stewardship. The GNWT made water preservation integral to environmental health and development goals. Led by former Finance and Environment Minister Michael Miltenberger, the NWT strategy made water a connector long before the Paris Conference. Miltenberger summarized the NWT strategy as follows: “the vision for the water strategy is that the waters of the Northwest Territories remain clean, abundant, and productive for all time.” Building on the lead and expertise of northern policymakers, Canada should make water stewardship and its connection to climate change a particular Canadian contribution to restoring the earth’s ecosystem health.

Foreign Policy and the North

In its first hundred days, the Trudeau government’s foreign policy has been consumed by the debate over the bombing mission against ISIS. Yet Canada will always be a bit foreign policy player in the Middle East. In the Arctic, however, Canada can be a major force and there is an existing multilateral institution – the Arctic Council – tailor-made for the aspirations of the Trudeau government to make a positive difference in the world. The Arctic Council has working groups or task forces on issues like indigenous languages, black carbon, oil spill prevention and response, maritime shipping and navigation and a host more. It is a body both with a commitment to human security and a track record in encouraging Russia to make a positive contribution to world affairs. Created in 1996, the Arctic Council was strongly influenced by Mary Simon, Canada’s first Ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs and a former president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. The Trudeau government should re-establish the post of Ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs and provide the necessary resources for Canada to contribute to the multipolar co-operative agenda of the Council.  

The conceptual breakthrough of the Arctic Council as an international organization was that it created a new structure involving the nation states plus indigenous representation as “Permanent Participants.” But left out of the blueprint was the question of resources and capacity. Indigenous organizations have a formal status at the Council but they often do not have the resources to fully participate. The Permanent Participants have come together to prepare a plan for the states who make up the Arctic Council to create a fund that would allow them to contribute to all aspects of the Council’s mandate. The Trudeau government should champion this plan so that indigenous knowledge and values are present at every stage of the Council’s work. We need indigenous values not only in national reconciliation but in international governance as well.

The Trudeau government has made an impressive beginning. It has articulated four overarching themes and so far Canadians are supportive – none more than northern Canadians, whose values and priorities seem so clearly aligned with the Trudeau government’s objectives of increased infrastructure spending, reconciliation, climate change adaptation and multilateral diplomacy. If policy implementation indeed is a slow inch-by-inch boring down, the Trudeau government should make a special effort to start this process in the permafrost.

On Friday, February 26, the University of Toronto International Relations Society presents “Canada’s Role in the Arctic: the Ongoing Debate,” a conversation with Thomas Axworthy, Public Policy Chair at Massey College, and John Hannaford, Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet (Foreign and Defence Policy) at the Privy Council Office. This event is open to the public – please RSVP here

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