Showing leadership on the future of the North

Those windmills aren’t going to tilt at themselves

Northwest Territories Premier Bob McLeod’s leadership on the future of the North is starting to get noticed.

After issuing his “red alert” last November that northerners’ hopes for sustainable jobs and economic opportunities were at risk from inattention and misguided policies from the south, he has been repeating his message to every reporter and conference he can find. Over the last few weeks, he has spoken at Simon Fraser University, the Vancouver Board of Trade and an event in Ottawa put on by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).

The message is starting to get through to broader Canadian audiences, with the Canadian Press covering his Ottawa messages in a widely syndicated article.

As Martin Luther King said, a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.

McLeod hasn’t changed southern Canada’s mindset yet, but he is starting to get the topic on the agenda.

In Vancouver, McLeod said “Other Arctic nations are proceeding with ambitious plans for social and economic development of their northern regions and it is time for Canada to have a plan of its own, developed by and for Northerners in dialogue with all Canadians.” Among other things, he has criticized the federal government for putting a moratorium on oil and gas development off the coasts of the three territories without consulting the three territorial governments or their peoples.

The CIGI event in Ottawa, which also included leaders from Alaska, the Yukon, Nunavut and Greenland, also saw the release of the centre’s new report on Northern development. It provides a fascinating tour of what other northern countries are doing and the growing gap in economic development between many of them and northern Canada.

I’ve written before about Alaska’s and Russia’s efforts to export massive amounts of natural gas to Asia, but the report adds a long list of other initiatives. China recently announced the Arctic component of its global One Belt, One Road infrastructure initiative, which is looking at Chinese involvement in oil, gas, mining, fishing and tourism around the Arctic. China is looking at using shipping routes to Europe through both the Northwest passage off the Yukon’s coast, as well as the parallel route the Russians are pushing on their side of the Arctic Ocean.

Meanwhile, the Nordic countries have a wide range of programs to support economic development in the north, including transport, energy and internet infrastructure. Norway continues to push offshore oil and gas development in the Arctic as it builds up its national savings fund, which grew past the US$1 trillion mark in 2017.

The report calls for, among other things, new north-south transport corridors, marine routes from Alaska through Canada to Greenland, and subsidized air transport both east-west within the north and to southern hubs.

McLeod’s timing is good and his message resonates because of his background. Being a long-time northerner born in Fort Providence and an Indigenous person adds to his credibility, as does the fact (as he points out) that five of seven N.W.T. cabinet members are Indigenous. It doesn’t hurt that he has a business degree from the University of Alberta and studied international affairs at National Defense College.

And his message is timely since it connects to growing concerns that the massive growth in government in the Canadian North, often crowding out or overwhelming private sector activities, is limiting our economic future.

I suspect that some cynical bureaucrats in Ottawa mock McLeod as the Don Quixote of Yellowknife. He is raising his voice against decades of assumptions, institutional arrangements and ways of thinking. He has a lot of windmills to fight.

But I’m glad he’s taken a stand for the people of the N.W.T. His crusade may be a long shot, but what is the point of having leaders who don’t lead?

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.

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