Scholar breaks through the northern spin

Despite all the political attention, Southern Canada doesn't really care about the North, says Ken Coates. And the trick is turning that into a good thing, said Coates, who's speaking at Yukon College this week.

Despite all the political attention, Southern Canada doesn’t really care about the North, says Ken Coates.

And the trick is turning that into a good thing, said Coates, who’s speaking at Yukon College this week.

The most recent northern flare-up featured Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon.

Cannon played the northern sovereignty card last week after a Russian document declared that country’s intention to turn its Arctic regions into a “top strategic resource base” by 2020.

“Let’s be perfectly clear here: Canada will not be bullied,” Cannon told reporters on Friday. The tough talk also comes after reports Russia sent patrol flights over Northern Canada a month ago.

The geopolitical tit-for-tat is an old game, said Coates. As an academic who’s specialized in the North, he’s seen how these superficial flare-ups usually serve political ends rather than long-term solutions.

“It’s a classic example of one of these periodic times of infatuation with the Canadian North,” said Coates.

“They come and they go, people get excited and then they lose interest, then they get excited and then they lose interest again,” he said.

The legal and strategic aspects of northern sovereignty are always less acrimonious than the politicians make it seem, he added.

“We’re hoping that what comes out of this particular time is that we pay some serious attention to the North and get the development of the North right—this is in fact the best long-term strategy for sovereignty protection.”

Coates, who is Dean of Arts at the University of Waterloo, will present his lecture, Arctic Front: The Sovereignty Debate and the Future of the Canadian North, on Wednesday.

Coates said he thinks the discussion needs to shift from dramatic showdowns over territory and resources to serious sovereignty-building, starting with the people who live in the North.

To a certain extent, that has already happened, he added. But this process needs to catch up with a daunting rise in southern indifference towards the North.

“The population in Southern Canada is changing very fast and very dramatically,” he said. “It has shifted away from a European-based population to a global population, lots of people from Asia, the Caribbean, Africa and South America.”

While it’s already tough to keep Northern Canada’s issues on the agenda in southern political hubs, this population shift is only going to exacerbate the indifference.

“The new Canadian population is decidedly uninterested in northern issues,” said Coates.

The provincial northern regions already suffer from political neglect, and the territories have benefited from a nostalgia factor to stay on the minds of Canadians.

“It’s like a ‘we know we’re never going to live here so we’re going to pay you guys to live there’ kind of mind-set,” he said.

But this romance will die off as the population changes.

“In a decade or so, half of Canada’s population will be in southern Ontario,” said Coates. “And that population is largely and increasingly made up of people from other parts of the world.

“We’ve got a real long-term problem, because this is an urban, central Canadian population that really isn’t connected to the North.”

Coates envisions a silver lining in all this. If the North continues its trend of increasing local decision-making and power, it won’t matter that southern Canadians don’t care about it.

“If you have a strong, regional northern population, no one will ever doubt Canada’s commitment to the North and the integrity of Canada’s sovereignty in the region,” said Coates.

“It’s only when you have sporadic government policy and inconsistent support that things fall to the wayside.

Canada’s North still has, compared to other northern nations, a much weaker infrastructure, he said. “The road system in the Northwest Territories is quite deficient.”

However, the Yukon’s self-government agreements have been a major step in the right direction.

“Yukon is one of the most stable (northern territories) because it’s got a lot of the land claims issues resolved and it has found ways to connect indigenous people into the process,” said Coates.

The Yukon is beginning to specialize in localizing decision-making, despite occasional resistance from territorial governments or the federal government to change things too dramatically.

“Self-government is very important and it’s made some major strides,” he said. “But it’s actually the decision-making authorities in the Yukon that are more significant. The whole pattern of these councils and committees and these decision-making bodies that have substantial aboriginal participation; these are the neat parts.”

“There’s still some major issues to deal with,” he added.

Education needs major rethinking, said Coates. And it’s key to developing sovereignty in the North.

“The main issue here is to realize that without education, these communities are going to have a hard time meeting all of their challenges,” said Coates.

“If you impose a southern model of education on the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut, you’re going to recreate the same administrative structures in the south and they don’t work up there,” he said.

“People have much broader engagements, people take on more responsibilities; they’re on a health commission, they’re on an education board, and they’re also on a wildlife planning management board. So you need a different kind of education.

“The flip side is that there is an awful lot of good information in indigenous communities that we have to learn how to capitalize on.”

Another facet that needs work is defence.

“I moved up to Whitehorse when I was about seven years old, in 1964,” said Coates. “At the time the Canadian Air Force was a very prominent presence in town. They were up top near Camp Takhini, CN had the Valleyview site, and up in Hillcrest it was all American or Canadian air forces.”

“That really stabilized Whitehorse, and they pulled them all out.”

Coates points to military bases in the sparsely populated Northwest Territory of Australia that are used to provide water, roads and other infrastructure to indigenous communities while also providing a military presence.

“So defence is more than defence,” he said. “Defence isn’t about having an enemy around the corner who’s going to attack you the next minute. It’s about recognizing the sovereignty of the area in the broadest possible terms.”

Despite its shortcomings, Canada is a global leader when it comes to getting aboriginal populations involved in their own destiny, said Coates. He points out that indigenous populations live all over the world and not just in former European colonies.

“It’s truly a global phenomena and Canada is widely seen as a world leader in this regard,” he said. “They’re often getting Canadian people to go down and visit other parts of the world.”

While there is still a long way to go, Canadians and northerners have already beaten the odds by climbing some major hurdles.

“Who would have thought in 1969 that we’d make it where we are today?,” said Coates. “Not many people, I can guarantee you that.”

Coates will present his lecture on April 1 at 7:30 p.m. at Yukon College.

Contact James Munson at

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