Tories need to fill in some blanks


It comes as no surprise that Stephen Harper’s Conservative government used its much-hyped Northern Strategy document, released July 26 in Ottawa, to brag incessantly about its activities in Canada’s North.

They’ve every right to brag — up to a point. In some important ways, Harper’s big-spending government really has devoted far more attention to Canada’s North than any previous federal regime.

The Government of Nunavut, for example, expects to spend more than $300 million on capital projects during the 2009-10 fiscal year. Pretty much all of that is Ottawa’s money.

It’s distributed through a variety of federal schemes. These include the gas tax fund, municipal rural infrastructure and recreation funds, as well as special one-time handouts created within the federal government’s recent economic stimulus package.

Since 2006, the Harper government has promised $300 million for social housing, $32 million for a “culture school” in Clyde River, about $9 million for a harbour in Pangnirtung, plus money for a new research centre, a naval re-fueling station at Nanisivik, and various other projects.

At the same time, the GN’s operating budget, nearly all of which flows from Ottawa, is growing fast, thanks to a new formula financing deal worth more than a billion dollars this fiscal year. That’s about $200 million more than they gave Nunavut in 2005-06 to run the territorial government.

In absolute terms, these numbers are impressive. In relative terms, they’re staggering.

Between April 1, 2009 and March 31, 2010, the federal government will spend at least $36,264 on every man, woman and child in Nunavut, up from $28,419 per capita in 2005-06.

Compare that with the $22,600 per person they plan to spend in the Northwest Territories this year, or the $1,000 per person they plan to spend in Alberta.

Ottawa has never funded Nunavut more generously than now. And in a perverse way, this may explains the disappointing emptiness of its Northern Strategy document.

If you get a chance, read it for yourself. You’ll see that it’s not a “strategy” at all. It’s a public relations brochure aimed at listing the federal government’s current activities in and for the North.

Some of it’s impressive. On Arctic sovereignty the tone is realistic and sensible. The document recognizes that Canada’s sovereignty over the lands and waters of the Arctic is not in serious danger, and that all potential areas of conflict are now being managed through various negotiating processes.

But the sections on economic development suggest that Ottawa doesn’t even know how to begin thinking about strengthening Nunavut’s economy over the long term.

For example, there is no recognition of Nunavut’s excessive dependence on fossil fuels. A credible long-term strategy for northern development would talk about measures such as loan guarantees for hydroelectric plants. Unless the federal government produces such an instrument, Iqaluit’s badly-needed hydro plant will never get built, and there’s no point in even planning for such projects elsewhere in the territory.

Don’t be lulled into complacency by today’s low fuel prices. When the recession ends, fuel prices will soar once again, doing serious damage to Nunavut’s economy and to the territorial government’s finances. But Ottawa’s Northern Strategy is silent on the issue of northern energy costs.

And the Northern Strategy contains no recognition of Nunavut’s transportation needs. The much-bragged about dock in Pangnirtung may help serve that community’s small fishing businesses. But six other communities still await small-craft harbours that were planned years ago and Iqaluit still needs a deep-water port. There’s also no serious discussion of roads and airports.

But the federal government did announce a $32 million in spending for a culture school at Clyde River. This project may make some people feel good, but it will do nothing to build Nunavut’s economy.

And there’s nothing in the document that acknowledges Nunavut’s greatest economic problem: its badly educated and unhealthy labour force.

Nunavut will never build a healthy economy without healthy, well-educated people. Recent data on the shocking rates of malnutrition that afflict Nunavut families, especially expectant mothers, remind us how far we are from achieving basic human development goals. And the Northern Strategy hardly discusses this at all. JB

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