Northern development: Can you have your cake and eat it too?
“The most urgent need for Nunavut is increased economic opportunities”
QUEBEC CITY—Government officials across Canada’s northern territories all claim to support sustainable development: resource extraction with minimal damage to the environment that creates good jobs and delivers benefits to cash-strapped communities.
But can you have your cake and eat it too? Two people from the territories who have each spent decades working on economic development in the North each say it’s a goal worth working for—but that it’s not easy to do.
Bernie MacIsaac, the Government of Nunavut’s assistant deputy minister for economic development, and Tony Penikett, a former NDP premier of Yukon, told the Arctic Circle Quebec Forum on the afternoon of Dec. 12 that meaningful sustainable development is essential.
“The most urgent need for Nunavut is increased economic opportunities,” MacIsaac said.
MacIssac, who appeared in place of Monica Ell-Kanayuk, Nunavut’s deputy premier and economic development minister, said economic statistics reveal that Nunavut enjoys a “robust GDP,” or gross domestic product.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
“A lot of the economy actually, the money, just goes right out of the territory again,” MacIsaac said.
This, however, doesn’t mean the GN should stop supporting resource development and make social and community development a higher priority, he said.
“I don’t want to minimize social and community development, but the truth is, we need both at the same time.”
He also told his audience that there’s now a large “academic infrastructure” that has been built up around research on social and community development.
But he said the GN has found that whenever they ask the population what they want, the answer is always the same: “people just want jobs.”
That, however, does not mean the GN is “blindly pro-development” and MacIsaac pointed out that the territorial government spends at least 60 per cent of its annual budget on social priorities: health, education, family services and public housing.
He also warned that curing Nunavut’s social ills involves processes that may take decades—and economic development is a necessary part of the prescription.
“We can’t address social and community development without economic development,” he said.
And to those who say that the lack of a devolution agreement for public lands and resources means Nunavut has no control over extractive activities, MacIsaac said the Nunavut land claims agreement puts a lot of power and wealth into Inuit hands.
That’s because, collectively, Nunavut Inuit are the biggest private landowners in the world, and that development projects on Nunavut lands would be extremely difficult to do without Inuit co-operation.
Tony Penikett, who spoke earlier that day, said the distribution of a fair share of revenues to northern communities is a key aspect of sustainable development. Without it, communities have little reason to support mining and other industrial activities.
He said that as a young man he worked as a labourer at an asbestos mine in Yukon. When that mine closed, the territory was left with nothing, except for a “big hole that can only be used as a town dump.”
And that inequitable distribution of resource revenue is still a problem, Penikett said.
“Many northern communities are in a position of not receiving a fair share of revenues from these lands,” Penikett said.
He also pointed out that Nunavut now stands alone among the three territories as the only northern government that lacks a devolution agreement that would give the territory control over public lands.
“It is the only jurisdiction where the people do not have control of lands and resources,” he said.
That’s the remark that prompted MacIsaac to say later that day that, even without a devolution agreement, the Nunavut Agreement gives Nunavut Inuit a lot of control over development.
As a model for rational development, Penikett praised Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, created by investing surplus earnings from offshore oil production.
Since its beginnings in 1990, the Norway petroleum fund now holds an estimated $880 billion, most of which is invested in European stock markets.
The purpose of the fund is to protect the small country of about five million people from the economic downturn that will occur when their petroleum reserves are exhausted.
The Norwegian government does not touch the fund’s capital, but takes four per cent of its earnings each year.
“I often wonder if Norwegian template can be used for sustainable development in the North,” Penikett said, pointing out that such funds could become useful if oil and gas production ever occurs in the Canadian Arctic.
The Arctic Circle Quebec Forum, an offshoot of the Arctic Circle assemblies held each October in Reykjavik, Iceland, took place Dec. 11 to Dec. 13 in Quebec City.