The nascent Canadian Northern Development Agency needs to be more open if it wants to distinguish itself from past attempts to spark the northern economy.
Since its inception 10 months ago, the junior agency has been little more than a name gracing federal cheques. While doling out cash is a nice gig, it won’t build a legacy unless there’s a plan for how all the little infusions add up.
And it’s hard to see from outside the agency what the plan is.
When Cannor’s Yukon wing was being conceived in the Elijah Smith Building last year, officials organizing the agency weren’t willing to talk.
And since its launch, Cannor officials haven’t explained why it’s any different from the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, which previously handed out economic development cheques.
Pinning down its role is important to prevent government waste.
Otherwise, the agency risks being a short-term tool for politicians to show how much they care about the North. It also risks being a cronyism-riddled slush fund, something other regional agencies in Canada have been criticized for.
This week, the agency’s president and deputy minister Nicole Jauvin addressed the Northern Partnerships Summit in Dawson City.
She struggled to explain how Cannor can do economic development better than Northern Affairs.
“It’s hard to answer that question without saying it wasn’t good in the past, and that’s not what I’m trying to say,” said Jauvin from Dawson City on Thursday. “But I think the exclusivity of our mandate – that we are focused on economic development – makes a huge difference.
“When you have a department that is focused, and rightfully so, on a number of other things, sometimes economic development did not receive the attention and the focus that we think would be warranted.”
So how does Cannor do things better?
The conference is fostering business deals, she said, though she wouldn’t provide specifics.
Cannor wants to help by serving as a go-between for private enterprise and the North’s myriad governments, she said.
“We play a bit of a role of broker,” she said.
There’s also an opportunity to be a sort of in-house lobbyist with Ottawa.
“If we don’t have the money ourselves to fund a project, what we’re trying to do is make the right linkage with other departments,” she said.
As a deputy minister, she meets regularly with her equals in other departments, and can make the right connections when money is needed somewhere in the territories, she said.
“We can help proponents of major resource projects navigate through the regulatory system.”
Of course, Northern Affairs could have done that. And each territory has its own department in charge of economic development.
But Cannor’s focus on economic development separates it from other federal initiatives, she said.
To prove that, she’ll have to provide benefits beyond the well-connected enterprises that have always benefitted from such regional agencies.
“Sometimes mistakes occur and mistakes have occurred in other regional development agencies,” she said.
The agency’s due diligence on projects will prove it’s investing properly, she said.
“I’m very comfortable that the processes are in place to ensure that there’s proper access to any number of projects.”
There will be struggles, she said.
For one, the agency needs better raw data on the North so it can better justify cash infusions.
With more baseline information, Cannor can then work on creating economic models that are suited for the North, she said.
When developing a strategy for public investment, “people often use per capita as a denominator but that doesn’t work here,” she said.
And then there’s the job issue.
Cannor is trying to hire northerners at its three offices in Iqaluit, Yellowknife and Whitehorse.
And in an expertise-starved jurisdiction like the territories, head-hunting is competitive.
“I’ve been told by a few First Nation chiefs, ‘Don’t come and poach our talent,’” said Jauvin.
Jauvin has a lengthy history in the upper echelons of the public service. She brings an enviable resume to the new agency. And she likely has a pretty good idea of how Ottawa and government in general works.
But if Cannor wants to survive the perils of repeating past mistakes, or turning into a clone of other regional agencies who have a reputation of picking favorites, it should offer the average citizen more insight into how it plans to build the North.
If people could see how each block fits into place – how each cheque builds a better society – Cannor could establish a strong reputation as a relevant, effective and useful wing of the federal government.
Until then, it’s still finding its way.
Contact James Munson at