New federal Arctic policy framework faces huge challenges in implementation

Mark Lowey
December 11, 2019

Amid growing calls for “nation-building” action in Canada’s North, the federal government faces huge challenges in implementing its new Arctic policy framework, policy experts say.

Among those challenges is the Arctic and Northern Policy Framework itself, which took three years to produce and critics called “half-baked” and “a chaotic mess.”

“There are no timelines, no clear action plan, no detailed budget,” Peter Kikkert, Irving Shipbuilding Chair in Arctic Policy at St. Francis Xavier University, told RE$EARCH MONEY.

“If this is a roadmap, it is one with few clear directions — a map that identifies hazards, problems and opportunities, but does little to illuminate how the federal government will work practically with its partners to navigate the complex terrain around myriad Arctic policies and seemingly intractable political dilemmas,” Kikkert and P. Whitney Lackenbauer, a Canada Research Chair in the Study of the Canadian North at Trent University, said in a briefing note in this year’s Arctic Yearbook.

“What’s not in the framework is any idea of how the government is going to address well-known issues,” such as the need for a healthy ecosystem, economic prosperity and the health of northerners, said Rob Huebert, a political science professor and Arctic specialist at the University of Calgary, in an interview.

Canada’s premiers, in a communique from their meeting in Toronto last week, called on Ottawa to take “tangible and significant nation-building activities,” including robust investment in infrastructure, in the three Northern territories.

The Special Senate Committee on the Arctic, in a report released in June this year, noted: “From food security to access to education and health care, the high cost of living, and aging or non-existent infrastructure, the Arctic’s residents are marginalized by their exclusion from investment. Canada falls even further behind when it is compared with other circumpolar countries, which make significant investments in the Arctic regions.”

Competing priorities, limited funds

The federal government, which released its framework online a day before calling the election, highlighted its “whole-of-government, co-development” process. Ottawa engaged the three territorial governments, 31 Indigenous and northern organizations, as well as three provincial governments.

“We took the necessary time and steps to co-develop a Framework that reflects and integrates the shared interests, goals and priorities of our partners and is responsive to the needs of Northerners,” Stephanie Palma, a spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, said in an email to RE$EARCH MONEY.

“I think in the long term that engagement is going to be absolutely crucial to the success of any policies they adopt moving forward,” Kikkert says. However, it is clear that the government and its partners were unable to reach consensus on several undisclosed issues, he adds. Also, the framework noted that its several add-on “partner chapters” don’t necessarily reflect the government’s views.

So implementing the framework and specific initiatives will be a big challenge, especially around controversial issues such as northern resource development and how to allocate a limited amount of funding, Kikkert says.

Palma says the work plan to negotiate and establish new governance mechanisms, and to develop implementation and investment plans, will occur “in the coming weeks.” “The key priorities of co-development partners will inform and guide this next stage of the process,” she says.

But Huebert is skeptical. “Every single one of the major decisions that this government has taken, as governments before it . . . that has a fundamental effect on life in the Arctic, has been made unilaterally by the federal government.”

For example, framework partners repeatedly mentioned the need for economic development. Yet the Trudeau government in 2016 unilaterally imposed a moratorium on future offshore oil and gas development in the Arctic, extended through an order-in-council this summer, until Dec. 31, 2021, Huebert notes. The government needs to start finding ways to invest in economically viable employment in the North, he says.

Kikkert says the government should act immediately on building Canada’s new polar icebreaker. Yet the project budget is still under review and no shipyard has been selected.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), which represents 65,000 Inuit in 53 communities and helped co-develop the Inuit Nunangat chapter of the framework, wants Inuit “self-determination” in research by implementing an Inuit Nunangat research policy. Canada is the only G7 country that lacks a comprehensive national policy on Arctic research, according to the National Inuit Strategy on Research, which ITK released in 2018.

“Work is underway to develop an Inuit-led research ethics review process, and we continue to advocate for a whole-of-government approach to adoption and implementation of the Strategy,” ITK spokesperson Patricia D’Souza said in an email.

“Success stories” and federal investment lauded

Kikkert notes that the level of Indigenous representation in ArcticNet, a Network of Centres of Excellence of Canada, “has grown exponentially” in the last few years. “There are also some positive success stories, examples of co-development that’s already in progress.”

For example, in partnership with the Northwest Territories government, Infrastructure Canada through its 10-year, $2-billion Disaster Mitigation and Adaption Fund will add 13 million litres of diesel fuel storage capacity in the NWT, to help protect residents during disasters or emergencies.

Also, through the $1.5-billion Oceans Protection Plan, Transport Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Canadian Coast Guard and other federal departments are working with Northern communities, including establishing a system of safe harbours and community-led monitoring in Cambridge Bay, to improve marine safety, Kikkert says.

Palma points out that Budget 2019 provided $700 million for new targeted investments in support of partners’ priorities and the framework’s goals and objectives, including:

  • $1 million over two years to establish a task force to study post-secondary education in Canada’s Arctic and northern regions;
  • $26 million over five years for construction of a new campus science building in support of Yukon College’s transition to Yukon University;
  • $13 million over five years for the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning in the NWT, to support delivery of culturally appropriate and community-developed curricula to enhance access to and success in higher education for Indigenous and northern students;
  • $18 million over three years to support planning by the NWT government for the proposed Taltson hydroelectricity expansion project, to reduce the region’s heavy reliance on diesel-fuelled power.
  • $75 million over five years for the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency’s Inclusive Diversification and Economic Advancement in the North (IDEANorth) program, which invests in economic infrastructure, sector development and capacity building so northerners can take advantage of Canada’s innovation economy.
  • $34 million over five years to enhance Canada’s global Arctic leadership by creating the first Arctic Council-related permanent secretariat in Canada (for the Sustainable Development Working Group); and
  • A federal contribution of up to $47.54 million over five years starting in 2019-20 and $9.66 million ongoing to support construction and ongoing operation of an addictions treatment facility in Nunavut.

Huebert, however, says the government doesn’t comprehend the “billions and billions of dollars” that will be necessary just to modernize the North American Aerospace Defense Command and patrol the extended Canadian Air Defence Identification Zone in the Arctic. “That’s going to eat up almost all of the available money they have for the North.”

Jessica Shadian, founder and CEO Arctic360, says the federal government and its partners should establish an Arctic Infrastructure Bank, with “northern desks” in both Invest in Canada and the Canada Infrastructure Bank. This would bring together institutional investors, Indigenous development corporations and territorial governments, to attract foreign direct investment, she says.

Arctic360 has partnered with the University of Victoria’s business school to put together an “Arctic infrastructure report card” for potential investors. The project includes inventorying projects in Canada’s North, Alaska and Greenland, which together constitute an emerging economy, Shadian says.

Canada is “asleep at the wheel” in realizing the North’s enormous human and economic potential, Shadian says. Like Norway, Iceland and other Arctic countries, Canada needs a dedicated “Ministry for the Arctic” and a narrative that envisions the North in 50 years, she says. “Create the vision and then write the roadmap. That’s a key to Canada’s future success.”


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