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Like Nunavut, with roads

Good transportation brings prosperity to Norway’s Arctic


KIRKENES, NORWAY — A young man with a large tattoo on his arm is working at his buddy’s corner store. He’s on a three-week break from his regular job at a remote work site.

He says he’s lived in this community all his life. When he’s not off at work, he still lives with his mother. That’s because housing is expensive here: a house, if you can afford one, costs $500,000.

And, anyway, homes are small, without many windows, to save on heat — and because it’s dark for three months of the year.

Sound familiar?

But this young man doesn’t live in Canada’s North: Kjell Nilsen lives in Kirkenes, Norway, a community of about 3,600, located as far above the Arctic Circle as Repulse Bay.

Yet, imagine for a moment that there was a road up from Montreal to Kuujjuaq or from Manitoba to Rankin Inlet, a deep-water port in Iqaluit or Bathurst Inlet, regular ferry service along the coasts and cheap flights to and from the South.

If Nunavut and Nunavik were connected to the rest of the country by a road, affordable air routes or by regular sea routes, many communities might resemble Kirkenes.

That’s because like them, Kirkenes is surrounded by fiords with fish-rich waters, rocks loaded with iron and other metals, and lands inhabited by indigenous people — the Saami.

But, unlike Canadian Arctic communities, Kirkenes is already at the hub of resource development because it has better transportation links with the outside world.

Kirkenes reveals that best possible future for Nunavut and Nunavik: when the Northwest Passage is ice-free, and improved transportation opens up possibilities for mining, oil and gas development, fisheries and tourism.

The Barents Sea — Norway’s arm of the Arctic Ocean, which lies at Kirkenes’s door — is rich in fish, gas and oil. When, due to global warming, the winter ice disappears along the top of Russia, Kirkenes will be right at the gateway to a new Arctic shipping lane between Europe and Asia.

About 25 per cent of the world’s unexploited oil and gas resources are believed to be in the Arctic. Right now, the most accessible place to hold these offshore resources is the Barents Sea.

The world’s largest gas field, Shtokman, in the Russian part of Barents Sea, will start production in 2010 and stay in business for 50 years.

Kjell is already working at the Norway’s Snohvit oil complex in nearby Hammerfest, also above the Arctic Circle. Snohvit is located on an island, connected to the city of Hammerfest by a tunnel. At Snovit, thousands of people work 12-hour shifts for big bucks, living in tiny private rooms, flown in and out at the company’s expense. And it’s so big, Kjell doesn’t even run into the people he knows.

“I’m only there for the money,” he says.

When Kjell comes home, he shops in Kirkenes’s well-stocked stores, and he has a new Russian girlfriend from across the nearby Russian border.

One in 10 people in Kirkenes are Russian. This, too, is due to better transportation. Russians spend millions of dollars on shopping sprees in Kirkenes, while Norwegians travel to Russia, where they shop for cheaper gas, booze and food, and better medical care than at home.

Up to 800 Russian fishing vessels also annually visit Kirkenes’s deep-sea port. Sailors pour out into the streets, which have Russian names.

Coastal ferry boats regularly bring passengers from southern Norway to Kirkenes, and bargain flights from Oslo — as far from Kirkenes as Montreal from Kuujjuaq — cost less than $100 each way.

You can even drive from southern Europe all the way to Kirkenes, watching the scenery change from lush fields to tundra. No wonder the local tourist office in Kirkenes gets at least 100 visitors every day in the summer.

Good transportation means Kirkenes has a bright future.

But its current prosperity has come from the ashes: in 1944, during the Second World War, Kirkenes was burnt to the ground. Through the 1960s, it thrived, mainly through its giant iron mine, which brought in 1,200 workers. Kirkenes had paved roads before any other community in the Norwegian Arctic, a swimming pool, hospital and airport.

Now, the former mining town is set to transform into a transnational area for cross-border trade, industry, culture and travel.

Businessmen like Svein Ruud, the head of Troika Seafood, intends to cash in. He wants to expand his company’s $50 million fish farming and export business, and brand fish from Kirkenes as clean and cold, reflecting the long heritage of the Saami.

Once the region around Kirkenes was a centre for the eastern Saami who called it “Akkalanjarga.” Saami traditional lands were broken up by the setting of the border between Norway, Russia and Finland, then by the development of the iron mine and the resulting influx of people into the region.

The region around Kirkenes is still 70 to 80 per cent Saami. But the impact of this new development on indigenous people concerns Norway’s Barents Secretariat, which funds projects for cooperation between Norway and Russia and operates a news site at

“What is happening now is that the new actors, the big companies, are trying to dig in the bank of the indigenous people, which are in the land,” says Alf Nystad, a Saami, and a special advisor to the Barents Secretariat.

Meanwhile, everybody in Kirkenes waits for the big economic explosion, good or bad, which will turn the town into a major Arctic and world player.

“It’s going to happen,” says Kjell. “We just don’t know when.”

But it’s sure to happen soon.

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