I was on a flight to Europe when the pilot made an announcement: “For all those of you sitting on the left side of the plane, look down and you’ll see Greenland.” Everybody on the right side of the plane stood and craned to have a look. I laughed. It reminded me that every Canadian has some interest in the North even if they can’t quite see it.
The North needs a vision, a careful and strategic plan that articulates its value to Canada and its future. Every Prime Minister recognizes and boasts about the great storehouse of northern riches but describing them at a photo op from an ice breaker or igloo is not a vision.
I was appointed first chair of the Canadian Polar Commission in 1991 by Tom Siddon, not a visionary or dynamic cabinet minister either. We’d meet three times a year and he’d ask questions. At the first meeting there were three well-dressed men with black books from the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. Siddon told them, “Excuse me, this is a meeting between Mr. Fraser and I.”
The next minister was Ron Irwin, Liberal MP from Sault Ste. Marie. I counted nine civil servants in the room for his meetings; the department was determined to control the Commission. They were threatened by independent advice and no doubt remain so.
Our mandate was to promote northern science, disseminate knowledge and provide advice to the government. I took my job very seriously and so did the dedicated, knowledgeable and visionary people who served with me as the Board of Directors. We told the government of the day that Canada needed a long term Arctic policy and vision. Sadly subsequent boards didn’t share our views.
Today the Polar Commission is just a filing cabinet. When Parliament voted last year to merge it into a new agency, the Canadian High Arctic Research Station, there was neither reaction nor fanfare.
Norway has a true northern strategy. Norwegians understand the riches of the North will sustain their country for the next hundred years. They know the environment must be protected if the economy is to be sustainable. They even established the Arctic University of Norway, the northernmost campus on earth. These people have a plan. Canada has no plan.
I propose a national commission on a new northern strategy. Only a national investigation by the best brains in Canada can address the challenges the North faces: the conflicts between ecology and mining; the disastrous impact of climate change on northern infrastructure; the poor education system and high unemployment.
No region of Canada has higher Indigenous unemployment and lower life expectancy, yet there is no national consensus on how to develop the region and help the people. Put simply, as Canadians we need to determine where, when, how, and who shares in the benefits from these resources.
The responsibility for creating the long term vision cannot and should not rest solely with the federal government. It must also come equally from the northern governments and the aboriginal organizations that administer the constitutionally protected modern treaties that we call land claims.
The cost of our myopia is human destruction in the North. Not everyone quite sees it, but somewhere in our national psyche I believe Canadians recognize we are a northern nation.
(Editor’s note: the author is founding chair of the Canadian Polar Commission, a veteran journalist who first joined the CBC as a reporter in Iqaluit in 1967. Mr. Fraser is the husband of Governor General Mary Simon. His commentary was first published March 22, 2015)