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North American leaders confront infrastructure development in volatile Arctic

Urgency of Russia’s war of Ukraine prompted speakers from the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Alaska
From left to right, moderator John Higginbotham, Yukon Premier Sandy Silver and Lt. Gov Kevin Meyer of Alaksa were joined virtually by Caroline Wawzonek, Northwest Territories minister of Industry, Tourism, and Investment, during a panel at the Pacific Northwest Economic Region summit on July 26, 2022. (Pacific NorthWest Economic Region/Twitter)

Yukon’s premier is pushing toward northern sovereignty on the North American stage.

On July 26, Sandy Silver spoke at the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER) summit, in a session titled Economic Development Challenges in a Volatile Arctic.

Silver noted Russia’s aggression in Ukraine related to economic opportunities and navigable waters in the Northwest Passage, which is the route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the Arctic Ocean.

“Yukon is really at the forefront of a whole bunch of really complicated conversations,” he said.

The annual PNWER meeting was held in Calgary from July 24 to 28. It is designed to bring together people from the policy and business worlds to brainstorm on challenges facing the pacific northwest region — Alaska, Yukon, British Columbia, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Washington, Northwest Territories and Saskatchewan. About half of attendees come from the private sector, alongside approximately 60 legislators and representatives from universities, governments and non-profits.

Yukon’s Minister of Economic Development Ranj Pillai, who did not attend the talk, sits on PNWER’s executive committee and typically goes to the yearly gathering.

Silver told the audience how the territory has been pressing forward on the Arctic front through talks with different levels of government across the country at various forums, including a recent meeting of the premiers at the Council of the Federation in mid-July.

“If Arctic sovereignty is not around anymore, then we’re all in jeopardy. You know, it took us 25 years to get our [Canadian] Rangers in the North new rifles … we have nuclear technology from other countries in our circumpolar region, so, we’ve been on a kind of a little bit of a traveling roadshow about the importance of sovereign communities with our premiers,” he said.

READ MORE: Premiers facing off with feds on Arctic

Silver said he was ultimately trying to sway the business crowd about the importance of telecommunications and healthcare.

“How do I convince the folks that are here for economic purposes how important telecommunications and healthcare in our most remote communities is important to you and affects your daily lives? Because it really does,” he said.

Silver said a lot has changed in the North and Yukon since the Cold War.

“Since then, we have most of the self-governing First Nations in Canada here in Yukon,” Silver said.

“The most important thing we can do, as opposed to ‘use it or lose it,’ is to invest in our communities, into our people of the North, and the Arctic and Northern Policy Framework.”

Geopolitical and climate context

Silver explained how Canada’s approach has shifted away from the old “use it or lose it” mentality of the Cold War era to this new approach of building resilient communities.

High-level representatives from the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Alaska converged in Alberta to talk about infrastructure development in the Arctic under what one leader characterized as “frightening” geopolitical circumstances given Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Silver talked alongside Alaska State Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer of the Republican Party and Caroline Wawzonek, minister of Finance and Industry, Tourism and Investment for the Northwest Territories, which has a non-partisan consensus government.

The panel looked at current geopolitical changes and implications for North American Arctic security and development. It was intended to address the needs of northern communities and dual spending across borders.

“When we’re talking about everything from potash development to the critical mineral strategy, Yukon is extremely ready to go because of our excellent rapport and relationships with First Nations governments in Yukon,” Silver said.

Breaking road rules

Moderated by senior fellow John Higginbotham of Carleton University, the typical focus on relations with Ottawa and Washington fell to the wayside during the panel of the northernmost counterparts of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region.

“Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is, in my view, the most dangerous geopolitical earthquake I have felt in many, many years,” Higginbotham said.

“Putin has torn up the international rules of the road.”

In his summit biography, Higginbotham previously spent 35 years working with Canada’s government and was an assistant deputy minister in three federal departments.

Higginbotham summarized the costs of inflation, manipulated gas and oil markets, food supply and more when it comes to developing better infrastructure. He cautioned that Russia’s aggression is far from over.

“The war has not, in some people’s view, even really started in terms of the new kind of perpetual Cold War we’re going to face with Russia given the atrocities they have carried out in Ukraine and what it reveals about their historical tensions and willingness to take risks in a stable international environment,” he said.

The federal government has imposed a list of sanctions in response to Russia’s “unprovoked and unjustified” attack on Ukraine since Feb. 24.

New motto

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to coming up with a new approach in December 2016. Released in September 2019 and co-developed by Indigenous representatives, the three territories, Manitoba, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada’s Arctic and Northern Policy Framework embodies the bottom-line principle: “Nothing about us, without us.”

Two of its eight goals highlight rules-based international order and ensuring people of the Arctic and North are safe, secure and well-defended.

“As the region becomes increasingly accessible due to the effects of climate change and improvements in cold-weather technologies, the region is emerging as an area of international strategic, military and economic importance, with both Arctic and non-Arctic states expressing a variety of interests in the region’s potential,” reads the framework.

Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada is the lead department on it.

The framework’s end date lands in 2030.

The Yukon has yet to release its chapter of the framework.

Silver said the framework needs federal money attached to it.

In an interview with the News after the panel, Silver explained his priorities for interdepence on U.S.-Canada projects include the Alaska Highway connecting Haines, Alaska and Beaver Creek, Yukon, and redeveloping the port of Skagway, Alaska.

He agreed with what Higginbotham said regarding the problem being about implementation as opposed to ambition when it comes to overall infrastructure development in the Arctic.

Contact Dana Hatherly at

Dana Hatherly

About the Author: Dana Hatherly

I’m the legislative reporter for the Yukon News.
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