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Use troops to build northern communities

Military spending might just be the fix Northern Canadians need to deal with aging northern infrastructure, says native Yukoner and historian Ken Coates.

Military spending might just be the fix Northern Canadians need to deal with aging northern infrastructure, says native Yukoner and historian Ken Coates.

Canada lags behind all the other circumpolar nations in the world in its spending on military and infrastructure projects in the North, he said.

Northern roads are crumbling, buildings are shifting from disappearing permafrost and many communities still don’t have access to clean water.

If Ottawa is going to pour money into military efforts in the North, it may as well have a benefit for the actual people who live there, said Coates and political scientist Greg Poelzer in On the Front Lines of Canada’s Northern Strategy, a report for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

The 23-page document is critical of the federal government’s shortsighted interests in the North.

Canada has always had an on-again-off-again relationship with the North, said Coates.

In the last 100 years, Ottawa has swooped into the Arctic to carry out military efforts and exploit resources, but it has never implemented a long-term vision for northern communities, he said.

As a result, many of these communities experience, “Third World living conditions.”

Of course, that’s tarring a large region with a single brush. The Yukon faces different challenges from our neighbouring territories.

But throughout the Arctic, failing infrastructure is common and a federal strategy focussed solely on sovereignty and not communities will fall short, says the report.

Whitehorse still has sewer lines that are 50 to 60 years old, built when the military was last stationed here.

“Raising money to fix those sewer lines would be a huge burden for taxpayers,” said Mayor Bev Buckway, who was in Iqaluit this week for the report’s release.

Funding programs in the Yukon come and go, she said.

The federal Canadian Strategic Infrastructure Fund and Municipal Rural Fund, which have long funded projects in Whitehorse, have recently been cut, noted Buckway.

Tying military funding to Yukon communities would be “efficient and economic.”

Communities would benefit from money spent on new airstrips or upgraded water and sewer lines, she said.

The military promotes economic stability, especially in the Yukon where the territory is prone to economic booms and busts, said Coates, who grew up in Whitehorse during the early ‘60s when the military had a substantial presence in the Yukon.

“Having the military around means that you can have larger schools and better hospitals,” he said.

But the government can go too far in its military funding, he cautioned.

“You can’t just be placing military bases for political reasons.”

What happens after the military pulls out is significant too, he said.

When Whitehorse’s RCAF military base closed in 1968, extensive cleanup was needed to deal with the environmental damages and socio-economic impacts on residents.

Military aside, there are other areas the government should be focusing on to strengthen the North, say Coates and Poelzer.

Canada should focus on making the Arctic a world leader in research science on climate change.

It should also work to connect remote regions of the Arctic with improved internet access to those communities.

Sweden and Greenland wouldn’t question making long-term investments in their Northern regions as a way to strengthen the country overall, said Coates.

Ottawa should also be working more closely with the municipal and regional governments truly on the “front-lines” of the North.

If government bolsters its military presence in the North, then communities should fully understand their plans before they implement them, say Coates and Poelzer.

Ottawa must consult with communities first, said Liberal MP Larry Bagnell.

The report makes some good points, he said.

“When Michael Ignatieff and I toured the North, the priority was infrastructure.”

Government should be leveraging military spending on sovereignty for long-term infrastructure projects, he added.

“We have a small tax base and can’t pay for all of this ourselves.”

The federal Conservatives’ strategy misses the point.

Funding in the North must actually benefit northerners.

“We welcome Canada’s Northern Strategy. It promises a better future, a strong economy a clean environment and more trade and troops,” said Federation of Canadian Municipalities president Hans Cunningham.

“It’s a good vision, but to get there we must first fix the crumbling roads and water systems.”

Contact Vivian Belik at