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Is spending public money on the Far North worth it?

Hoar frost covers the ground and short vegetation sticking above the snow on the barrens east of the northern Nunavut community of Cambridge Bay on Nov. 30, 2013.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

This is part of The North, a Globe investigation of unprecedented change, to the climate, culture and politics of Canada's last frontier. Join the conversation with #GlobeNorth

The Globe's Artic Circle panel of experts and leaders is discussing five key questions about Northern issues. Their responses and conversations will appear throughout the week on Globe Debate.

Doug Saunders: What are the challenges and responsibilities for the future of northern peoples? What do we say to those who believe that Ottawa should not be subsidizing remote communities to the extent that it does?

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Tony Penikett: As I understand it, the complaint is that Canadians subsidize each Nunavummiut to the tune of something like $32,000 a year. That means each Canadian contributes about $30 a year to support Nunavut. But, as is often said, since the Cold War-era relocations to Ellsemere Island, the Inuit of Nunavut have been the flagpoles of Canadian sovereignty and Arctic security.

The United States bases 25,000 armed forces personnel in Alaska at a likely cost of around $100 or more a year per American. Nunavummiut suffer the highest food, housing and energy prices in Canada -- in other words, extreme food insecurity and seriously overcrowded homes. And since Canada's military presence in the Arctic remains light on the ground, maybe Canada is getting off cheap and our flagpoles deserve more support.

Mary Simon: Can we not at least agree that Canadians, along with other northern nations, understand that distance, small populations and cultural diversity are part of our national character and part of what makes us a polar nation? I also want to say that 'remoteness' of Arctic communities is outdated thinking in an age of daily air travel and internet connectivity.

As the late Jose Kusugak once said, Inuit view themselves as 'First Canadians, Canadians First,' and we want to be full contributors to Canada. Thoughtful development of Arctic resources will attract investment in Canada, create employment for Canadians, pay royalties to governments and Inuit, and buy goods and services from the provinces.

I do think that Canada can learn from other circumpolar nations about taking a broader approach to our North, beyond its potential for resource extraction. For example, unlike Canada most of the nations represented in the Arctic Council have universities in their North because universities are viewed as one of the pillars in developing their young people as well as investing in research and polar knowledge. Inuit demographics differ from the rest of Canada and this really necessitates innovative policy approaches. Over 60 per cent of Canadian Inuit are under the age of 25, so does it not make sense for Canada to invest in education as one of our pillars of a northern strategy?

For the past 5 years I've been involved in an initiative to close gaps in Inuit education and increase our graduation rates, which are among the lowest in Canada. I've had encouraging and unexpected support from foundations and corporations which want to make a contribution to our North. But I have been unsuccessful in convincing the federal government that Canada has a responsibility to ensure that all regions of the country meet a minimum education standard, and that making added investments to education in the North should be part of a visionary northern strategy. To be clear, this is not the responsibility of the federal government alone. Northern governments, Inuit and Dene land claim organizations all need to take the long view and make an investment in educating our young people this generation's priority.

Consider that we will be soon be celebrating Canada's 150th anniversary. We are trying to accomplish in the North in two generations what Canada has done in other regions in six generations. To the critics we say this: Canada is a polar nation. Realizing the possibilities of the Arctic region and its people will take more time and necessitates the long view that a country with 150 years of nation-building experience should understand.

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Rob Huebert: One of the greatest challenges is the tyranny of distances and economics. Throughout all of Canada, you will find that the most complete services are always clustered around the larger urban centres. There will always be more educational, medical and governmental service in cities such as Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal than Flin Flon, Rimouski or Corner Brook. All receive some services but often must make their way to larger cities for complete services. But this is where the magnitude of the distances make themselves felt in the North. For most northerners there often is no road they can use to drive to a larger urban setting. Even for those who do have access to a road system, the distances are such that there is no real access unless days of travel are allowed for. The expense of air travel offers no real alternative. Thus the real issue is how you deal with very small population centres, vast distances and an almost nonexistent transportation system.

Tony Penikett: Rob Huebert is correct, except that, thanks to federal transfers, conditions just north of the 60th parallel are better than in the northernmost parts of the provinces. In general, the best answers to your questions can be found in the 2004 Arctic Human Development Report (a new one is due in 2014). It showed declining populations for the Nordic countries and Russia, with some regions of the old Soviet Union suffering precipitous declines. Since 1989, Chukotka, for example, has lost over 70 per cent of its population. However, in his book The World in 2050, US geographer Laurence C. Smith predicts that, over the next forty years, Canada, the United States and the Nordic countries will have the fastest growth rates in the world, while Russia, which has high death rates and low birth rates, may lose 24 million people from its current population.

The Circumpolar Health Conference reports show that, in general, the health status of the northern residents of Norway, Sweden and Finland is high and the worst health status is recorded for Arctic Russia. The Canadian territories and Alaska are in the middle. Finland has a very good public-school system but it is a largely homogeneous society. Canada and the United States still struggle with the residue of the residential school system and, in the North, the unresolved issue community control of schools, language of instruction and appropriate curriculum. Ottawa funds a French first-language school in Whitehorse but could not bring itself to fund an Inuktitut-language high school program in Nunavut, as Thomas Berger proposed in his conciliator's report on the implementation issues with the Inuit land claims settlement in that territory.

As to devolution, Nunavummiut remain the only Canadians who do not manage public lands and resources in their province or territory, without which powers, and the revenues that follow, they cannot address educational, health, housing and other deficits in the community. The brilliant Adam Goldenberg argues that, by right as Canadian citizens and as aboriginal people, Nunavut's residents have a right to devolution. Canada does better for its North than most countries, but it is not good enough.

John English: Tony points to the 2004 Arctic Human Development Report that provided the first comprehensive study of the social indicators of life in the North. There have been many subsequent studies carried out by the Arctic Council's Sustainable Development Working Group that have supplemented the AHDR. All of the studies point out the difficulties of comparison and the unreliability of some statistics, but there are clear trends and they don't reflect well on Canada.

The Nordic countries stand above the other northern regions in virtually all social indicators and while it correct that their challenges are fewer, distances are shorter, and there is greater homogeneity, the general conclusion is that Norway, Sweden and Finland stress education strongly, make investments that benefit northern communities directly, and use direct transfers more effectively to deal with specific cases of deprivation. Russia, as Tony points out, does poorly on almost every count, but recent evidence does show some improvements in outmigration and health.

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The ADHR separates the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, and compares the latter with Greenland, indigenous Alaska, and the Inuit population in Russia. In the case of the NWT, the analysis points to "below-expected levels of social well-being," and adds that the NWT does "not perform well in respect to health and demographics." The most troubling part of the NWT analysis is the growing econonic gap between the poorer communities, largely aboriginal, and the high incomes of the larger cities whose GDP per capita is considerably higher than that of Canada itself. Despite at least one outstanding political leader, the NWT is marked by growing inequality and education gaps.

The education gaps are most startling in the comparisons of Nunavut with Greenland, Alaska, and Chukota. In the case of Chukota, other statistics reflect the great differences between health indicators and income between Russia and the other Arctic Council members. Although many of the social indicators are similar among the other three regions, Nunavut is an outlier on education. In Nunavut, 44 per cent of adults have only elementary education compared with 10 per cent in Greenland and 13 per cent in Alaska. And 16 per cent in Nunavut have completed a vocational or college program while the comparable figures are 41 per cent in Greenland and 25 per cent in Alaska.

As Mary Simon has pointed out several times, education is essential for the jobs that may appear. Canada has done a dismal job, and we are less ready for the future than others are.

Michael Byers: It is always easy to find excuses for inaction. Yet the total population of Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and Yukon is just 107,000 – less than half of one per cent of Canada's population. Dramatically improving the educational, health and employment outcomes of such a small group is an achievable goal for a G7 country with a $2-trillion economy. And let's be clear: a vibrant, sustainable northern economy cannot happen without the full participation of northern residents. Fly-in, fly-out projects manned by southern or foreign temporary workers will not help northern communities to overcome their challenges. It is time for the rest of Canada to step up, in a truly significant way, and help northerners become full participants in our national economy. This is a big project, comparable to the nineteenth century "national dream" of building a railroad from the East Coast to the West Coast. But those who balked at the multi-billion-dollar cost should ask: If the Canadian Arctic were put up for auction on EBay, how many trillions of dollars would other countries be willing to pay -- for our opportunities and responsibilities?

Shelagh Grant: After so many years of exploitation and denial of basic rights of citizenship, I find it hard to believe that anyone would suggest that the remote northern communities should not receive substantial subsidies for health, education and housing to provide them with tools to participate in the modern world. Moreover, the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement was negotiated when there was no indication that a major warming trend would adversely affect their communities. It seems unconscionable that those who are most severely affected should be denied compensation to assist in adaptation, by those responsible for the major increase in greenhouse gases, which in turn has ensured that the meltdown in the Arctic is now irreversible.

Since the needs of each northern community vary, it might be appropriate for the federal government to allocate all revenue earned from royalties and offshore exploratory licenses to an infrastructure fund, administered by the Nunavut government and available by application from each community according to their own infrastructure needs. Such a fund would also require a major infusion through transfer payments from the "have" provinces.

Wade Davis: After all that the Inuit have endured I find it astonishing that any Canadian could question expenditures, modest in the scheme of things, that facilitate the cultural survival and well-being of a people that by their very existence have given so much to the country, the very image of Canada as a northern nation. At the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, the symbol of the games, the icon we selected as a people to distill the essence of our being, the emblem of our collective values, was not a mining truck or chain saw, it was an inuksuk, a stone cairn built by human hands, a marker that points the way home, even as it defines a spirit of place, a sense of eternal belonging to the land.

Those concerned about government subsidies should consider the extension of the Northwest Transmission Line in British Columbia, a project now underway. Conceived to bring the provincial grid north to service a handful of proposed mines, its destination is a highway yard just far enough up the Stewart Cassiar highway to allow these projects to fund their own dedicated lines south. Some call it the power line to nowhere, for since its inception all but one of these mining projects have been mothballed. In two years the projected costs of the power line extension have nearly doubled to $750-million, a figure that many analysts believe will reach $1 billion. Of the $400-million originally budgeted for the project, fully $130-million came from the federal Green Infrastructure Fund, set aside by Ottawa to reduce our national dependence on fossil fuels. The NTL megaproject, it has been officially said, will allow 350 Tahltan men, women and children at the small community of Iskut to get off diesel generating power and reduce their carbon footprint, albeit at a cost of roughly $37,000 per resident.

On the assumption that the government would not spend $750-million to enable Forrest Kerr, a privately held hydro-electric project, to sell power back to the grid, people recognize that the primary beneficiary of what may become a billion-dollar public expenditure is Imperial Metals Red Chris mine, a project that could not possibly proceed without access to power.

The government speaks of expanding provincial infrastructure. Imperial heralds private investment as it builds its own dedicated line south 70 miles to Bob Quinn, all part of an agreement that obliges BC Hydro to buy back the Red Chris line for $52-million at the end of construction. There is no talk of subsidies, but that is precisely what the NTL has begun to look like, a massive public subsidy without which the Red Chris mine would never open; a mine, incidentally, that is being placed on Todagin Mountain, a wildlife sanctuary in the sky that is home to the largest population of Stone sheep in the world. There are 4000 copper and gold mines scattered about the planet. To place one on Todagin is like drilling for oil in the Sistine Chapel. It is only happening because of government subsidies, tax dollars from the people of Canada who remain quite unaware of what is being done in their names. This is a subsidy that we should be concerned about, not the funds that go to foster the lives and the future of the people of the northern ice.

Mary Simon has served as Canada's first ambassador for circumpolar affairs, as president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and as lead negotiator for the creation of the Arctic Council.

Tony Penikett was NDP premier of Yukon from 1985 to 1992, and the Nunavut's chief devolution negotiator until 2012.

Wade Davis is an anthropologist, ethnobotanist, explorer, photographer, filmmaker and author of 20 books focusing on remote and endangered cultures. He is a member of the University of British Columbia's anthropology department.

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC. He is the author of International Law and the Arctic.

Shelagh Grant is the author of Polar Imperative: A History ofArctic Sovereignty in North America and adjunct professor of Canadian studies at Trent University.

John English is the author of Ice and Water: Politics, Peoples and the Arctic Council. He holds academic positions at the University of Waterloo, the Munk School of Global Affairs and Trinity College at the University of Toronto.

Rob Huebert is associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. He has written and researched extensively on Arctic policy and defence issues.

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