The failed plan to develop the Canadian North

The United States had just landed a man on the moon, and Canada had just pulled off the epic success of Montreal’s Expo 67.

The United States had just landed a man on the moon, and Canada had just pulled off the epic success of Montreal’s Expo 67.

Great national efforts left their mark the late 1960s, and for decorated Canadian Major-General Richard Rohmer, the changing atmosphere of the 1960s was just what was needed for his expanding plan to move the country North.

Canadian cities were overcrowded, an energy crisis was just over the horizon and activists in Quebec were threatening to tear the country apart.

The future was uncertain, and a new national plan was needed.

At one time, scores of hopeful Canadians had ventured westwards in search of prosperity. For the modern era, the direction of the future was North, along a stretch of boreal forest running from Northwestern BC to Northern Quebec.

“It is time for Canadians to seek and find a national purpose, a common objective though which all of us can submerge our stunting preoccupation with the problems created by the enriching ethnic and cultural divisions upon which our Dominion was founded,” said Rohmer.

“A national purpose behind which each Canadian may stand whether he or she is new Canadian or old, whether he is of French, English, Scottish, Irish, Slavic, German, Italian, Caribbean, Japanese, Chinese, American or whatever racial origin or whatever mother tongue,” said Rohmer.

The concept of developing mid-Canada first emerged when Rohmer was gazing at a map of Canada that showed the immense forest stretching along Canada’s mid-North.

“The great green boreal forest jumped out at me and a concept emerged in my mind. Here was a stretch of Canada that was habitable and extremely sparsely populated,” wrote Rohmer in 2004.

As months wore on, Rohmer had become ever more captivated with the idea of moving Canadians away from the urban areas hugging the American border, and into the uniquely Canadian stretches of its boreal forest.

“The development corridor, as it is envisioned, is a belt that traverses Canada through its mid-North and northern regions, with a railway as its spine,” read a 1967 introductory pamphlet.

“Within this belt will grow new towns, new industries, new highways, enlarged ocean ports, new agricultural areas and a new transportation grid for the whole of Canada,” it said.

The idea was two-fold; provide an area of settlement for Canada’s many immigrants and begin a program of managed and sustainable resource extraction for the mid-North.

“We’re letting 250,000 to 300,000 people into this country every year … they’re always going into the urban areas — and the impact on services, we wonder why we can’t get adequate medical services, we’re just swamped by all this sudden input of people,” said Rohmer recently from his home in Sarnia, Ontario.

“If we are able to appreciate that we are letting in millions of people from every country in the world, which we are doing, we should be able to think about how they can go to new communities that are planned, that are attractive to them just as well as Montreal, Toronto (and) Whitehorse can be,” he said.

In 1969, Rohmer convened a conference of 150 business, political leaders and advocates to discuss how the North would be developed, what needed to be done, and the imperative of doing it soon.

Expectations were high.

In a 1969 letter to Yukon entrepreneur Rolf Hougen, Rohmer framed the conference as “one designed to be among the most important and influential ever convened to examine the future growth and development of Canada.”

His opening remarks at the conference were equally lofty.

“My hope is that, whatever is done in mid-Canada, the standards for living, for education, for the growth of individual and his ability to provide for his family will far exceed anything we have ever achieved in Canada so far,” he said.

As it planned the future, the conference was determined to “avoid the mistakes of the past — the degradation and exploitation of the true native Canadian peoples, wanton pollution of air and water and indiscriminate destruction of the only pure, virtually untouched region on this continent,” wrote Rohmer in 1970.

In a country where First Nations had only received the vote nine years previously, the conference was remarkable for its close involvement and consultation with First Nations peoples.

“You businessmen, you mining people, you labour people, where are your Indian foremen, your Indian stewards, your Indian field bosses?” asked Walter Currie, President of the Indian-Eskimo Association of Canada, in a speech to the conference.

“Will tomorrow be no better than the Canada of yesterday or today for my people, or will we be invited as equal partners to participate in determining our futures?” said Currie.

“This may be the last asking, what will be your answer?” he added.

“If we, the white men, who are so impatient to get out the wealth and tame the area, cannot devise ways to involve our native brethren, then we had better stay away until we can,” said a conference participant.

“Any other course of action is morally indefensible and economically wasteful,” he said.

The economic and cultural pressures of the United States also seemed to weigh heavily upon an imperative to move Canadians into the Northern corridor, instead of being crowded just north of the 49th Parallel.

“(Developing the corridor) is a common objective through which all of us can submerge our oppressive preoccupation with the threatened political, economic and cultural absorption of Canada by the United States,” said Rohmer in 1967.

He has been a prolific novelist throughout the last 33 years and several of his books have been political thrillers about Canada-US conflict over Canadian resources.

Ultimatum, published in 1974, features a Texan president of the United States who, desperate for natural gas, places an ultimatum on Canada to allow American companies access to natural gas resources in the Arctic islands or face sanctions.

“The pressures that the US places upon us for energy, water, minerals and all other natural resources must necessarily escalate over the coming decades in proportion to its population growth,” wrote Rohmer in the Arctic Imperative, his call for Canadian resource independence.

“If we are to continue to live next to, but not as part of, the United States, Canada must prepare now to create its national goals, policies and objectives,” he wrote.

“I really don’t see the United States as a ‘threat’ at all in terms of Canada, although you have to be very wary of what the Americans are going to do next,” said Rohmer.

“They don’t know that we exist, fundamentally, and they know very little about us, and seem to care less as we move along,” he said.

For Rohmer and conference participants, developing mid-Canada was much more than simply a logical development scheme — it was a spiritual and cultural awakening.

“Canadians will cease to live as colonials, imitating the cities and the economic life of Great Britain or the US, and will live as a Northern people like Siberians or Scandinavians,” said John Conway, a professor at York University, in Rohmer’s post-conference book, the Green North.

The country’s geographic reorientation would have untold cultural effects on the Canadian people, he surmised.

“I have in mind Elizabethan England, when England finally abandoned her territorial claims in France, and therefore the idea that she was part of continental Europe, and admitted that she was uniquely England,” said Conway.

“In the wake of this new awareness came Shakespeare and Marlowe and Spenser and the other glittering Elizabethans,” he said.

The optimism of the conference fell on deaf ears in Ottawa only months later. When Rohmer presented the final report to prime minister Pierre Trudeau at Rideau Hall in 1971, it was refused virtually on the spot.

“I think that he thought at the time that I was a Conservative, and that anything we were doing was not worth looking at,” said Rohmer.

The meeting continued, with Trudeau responding to Rohmer’s arguments with indifference.

Leaving Rideau Hall to go to question period, Trudeau was still “testy and agitated,” wrote Rohmer.

Minutes later, Trudeau would be accused of mouthing obscenities at opposition MPs. In a press scrum, Trudeau would famously claim that he was simply saying “fuddle duddle.“

In his autobiography, Rohmer credits their tense meeting with “creating the phrase that has become part of the Canadian parliamentary legend and Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s legacy.”

Failed meetings with deputy ministers would follow, and in the end, Rohmer’s vision for the North fizzled away.

“There has been no overview planning done by Ottawa or indeed by the provincial governments,” said Rohmer.

Forty years later, Canadian urban areas continue to swell with new arrivals, and the boreal forest remains empty except for the occasional “blip” of touch-and-go resource extraction.

Rohmer, who is now Canada’s oldest practicing lawyer, oldest registered pilot and one of its oldest publishing authors, has never wavered on his support for the scheme.

But if you look closely, its effects were felt throughout the Canadian psyche, if only subversively.

“The conference had really influential people from all over Canada, and I think there has been a wave from that point that has not stopped,” said Rohmer.

“It caught a lot of imaginations, I can tell you that,” he said.