INNOVATION, INVESTMENT, INFRASTRUCTURE: Good Governance in Canada’s North – Part One in a Series

6 minute read

By: Toby Fyfe, President, Institute on Governance

For the past five years, the IOG has been working in Nunavut to develop capacity among Inuit public servants in leadership and policy development. On February 4, we entered into a partnership with Arctic360 to support a Forum for Arctic Infrastructure Innovation.

Arctic360 works with Indigenous development corporations, Northern governments, the private sector, the federal government, Arctic leaders, and other stakeholders to help promote and attract Canadian and global investment in the North American Arctic.

Arctic360 has set itself ambitious, laudable and critically important goals. It wants to increase investment and opportunity in the Arctic in order to improve the quality of life of northerners and promote Canada’s leadership in the world. As a start, it is focusing on bringing together Bay Street, Tech, Arctic leaders, industry and other experts to promote a 21stcentury infrastructure program in the North.

To get there, however, it will be critical to navigate the complex 21stcentury governance issues in the region.

What do I mean by governance? Good governance tells us who has power, who makes decisions, how players are heard, and how account is rendered.

Good governance is context-based; that is, it reflects social realities. If you have good governance in place, the chances are that decisions reached are by and large accepted by citizens, partners and sectors. This is a fundamental criterion for social stability and thus economic growth; without good governance, public decision-making structures are at risk and the institutions engaged in those decisions may be ignored or, at worst, discredited.

All this matters because the expectations of those living, and engaged, in the North, are changing rapidly. This has an impact on what good governance of the North is.

Historically, Canadians saw the North as one big cold, empty space. It was a wilderness, an Indigenous homeland, a rich resource, and a bulwark of defence.

Successive Canadian governments saw the North as an area to be managed and exploited to serve the greater population to the South. It was governed from Ottawa and overseen by southerners and their institutions. Federal approaches reflected the policy concerns of the day, often with disastrous consequences for the local population. They rarely offered a long-term, coherent and holistic view of the North that included both national priorities and the needs and aspirations of those living there.

The fact is, Canada’s North is many things: yes, it is a wilderness, an Indigenous homeland, and a rich resource. It is also many contradictory things: isolated and connected; traditional and modern; potentially rich and disproportionately poor.

Perhaps above all, it is an area of future strategic importance with huge opportunity for economic development and progress – if we can just get it right.

Our goal must be to work in partnership with those who live in the North to, as Sean Boyd of Agnico Eagle Mines Ltd. has said, “build opportunity” for the communities, the region and the country; and drive social and economic development through respect and collaboration.

To do so, we will need to reflect on the four most critical changing governance realities of the North, the drivers that have an impact on how decisions are made and how account is rendered: climate change; growing international interest in Canada’s North; Indigenous demands for participation in developing their future; and the role of the federal government.

Climate change

Canada’s North is warming more quickly than just about anywhere else in the world. The Nunavut Climate Change Centre notes that “almost every part of life in the region will be touched by climate change.” In the National Inuit Climate Change Strategy, Natan Obed, President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) – the organization which represents the rights and interests of Inuit in Canada – warns governments and partners that climate change action in the North must be based “on Inuit rights and the governance structures defined in our land claims agreements,” possibly referring to the social disruption that melting permafrost and flooding will have on Northern communities.

Growing international interest in Canada’s North

The Arctic Council’s eight members (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, US and Sweden), including representation from Indigenous people, reflect the reality that the North and its future involves more than just one entity and one interest. But now, there are 13 states which have observer status (including China, Poland, India and Korea). Why? Because they understand the increasing geo-political importance of the region, notably if the Northwest Passage becomes fully navigable due to climate change.

Indigenous demands for participation in developing their future

Apart from formal public governance structures (such as federal, territorial and municipal governments), local communities, self-governing Indigenous groups and land claim implementation corporations are active in discussions over development

Take an example of changing governance in this area: The ITK is advocating for federal policy approaches that are responsive to all of Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit homeland made up of 51 communities across the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (Northwest Territories), Nunavut, Nunavik (Northern Québec), and Nunatsiavut (Northern Labrador). Inuit Nunangat makes up nearly one third of Canada’s land mass and 50 percent of its coastline. This concept, despite being endorsed by the federal government in the December Throne Speech, has yet to play out in relation to governance and decision-making in Canada’s North.

Federal government role

The federal government continues to have a huge and complex role to play in the governance of the North. Through multiple departments, including Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, to name just four, the government is engaged in most aspects of Northerners’ lives, either directly or indirectly. And one could add that systemically, these contributions are probably not as coordinated and focused as they could be.

Devolution in Canada’s North is underway. The Northwest Territories signed a devolution agreement with the federal government to manage resources and land, Yukon has signed one as well, and Nunavut has an agreement in principle.

Through co-management boards, the federal government, the Government of Nunavut and the Inuit organization Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI), share decision-making and accountability for the management of wildlife, water and land planning. In short, there are multiple institutions and mechanisms for shared governance that exist and the governance challenge is to ensure that their efforts are better coordinated to produce more effective outcomes for citizens of the North, the sanctity of the land and the prosperity of all of Canada.

At the end of the day, we are aiming for a 21stcentury infrastructure program. To get there, I think there is a 21stcentury Northern governance message: there are many players in the various decision-making processes. Some work better together than others. And the landscape is ever-changing. So, it will be critical to ensure that the various players and processes governing Canada’s north are responsive to challenges of developing a 21st century infrastructure program, and that that program is, in turn, responsive to the needs of all Northerners.

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