Review: The 60- Year Experiment

The territories are a 60-year experiment in state planning. The result is a succession of little victories and big defeats. Ottawa spends $64 million a year on food subsidies, yet chicken costs $45. The jobless rate in Nunavut is 18 percent. Homeless shelters in Yellowknife face periodic outbreaks of tuberculosis. Yukon’s GDP has shrunk three years in a row.

“Canada’s North has always been a colony to southern interests, a fact that has profoundly marked its historical development,” writes editor Chris Southcott in Northern Communities Working Together. “Despite current trends towards increased self-government, the territorial North is still heavily dependent on the federal government for the provision of services and decision making.”

This happened once before, in Newfoundland & Labrador in 1949, when state planners tried and failed to impose an industrial economy on a society of poor fishermen. The result was costly and disastrous. “Anyone familiar with administering public services in Newfoundland is well aware of the naiveté with which Newfoundlanders – especially the very dependent ones, and they are legion – look to government to supply most every need,” Herbert Pottle, the province’s first welfare minister, wrote in his 1997 memoirs Newfoundland: Dawn Without Light.

“Their age-long isolation had encouraged it, and the glad tidings of additional government benefits have tended to institutionalize it,” Pottle wrote. “It was the old and easy way out: ‘Get the government to do it.’”

Northern Communities examines the grassroots alternative. The verdict is uneven. The territories remain underpopulated – Whitehorse, the biggest city, has only 23,000 people – and many residents have no intention of spending the rest of their lives in the region. There are few community clubs organized by unions, charities or local improvement groups, and those that exist are dominated by government. “It’s not surprising that people who live in the territorial North rely upon publicly-funded education, health care and social welfare,” writes Southcott, a professor of sociologist at Lakehead University.

“Paternalistic state policies, no matter how well intentioned, have had an impact, sometimes positive but often negative, on the development of social economy organizations in the North,” says Southcott.

Northern Communities is not an exposé; it’s an honest account of community life in a region governed by faraway federal regulators and mining corporations. Accounts are candid. The effect is unsettling.

“In the North, state-society relations bear the marks of their undemocratic history of power imbalance,” writes Prof. Frances Abele, of Carleton University’s School of Public Policy. “Sustained and sometimes massive federal interventions have affected, for example, how people make their living (wildlife harvesting regulations); their living arrangements (settlement of people in communities); and the organization of child rearing (compulsory education) to name just a few.”

Even attempts to document success stories are mitigated by unrealized potential, if not outright failure. Prof. Thierry Rodon of Laval cites Pangnirtung Fisheries Ltd., a Nunavut processor. Is a fish plant part of the social economy? “Yes,” says a resident. “The fish plant here provides money for us and it also provides economy for the families who are out working together as a group. That’s an example of social economy.”

Pangnirtung Fisheries Ltd. has never turned a profit. It has operated as a Crown corporation for 23 years. It employs 80 people. Its net loss after subsidies is $41,000 annually, and that was before Parliament chipped in $40.5 million to improve the village harbour.

Is this the best Canada can do?

By Holly Doan

Northern Communities Working Together: The Social Economy of Canada’s North; edited by Chris Southcott; University of Toronto Press; 304 pages; ISBN 9781-4426-14185; $24.95

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