Yukonomist: The North and Canada’s election campaign

It was inspiring to see one of the major party leaders kick off his election campaign and electrify the nation with his vision of the Canadian North.

Oh, wait, that was the 1958 election.

The 2019 campaign has been on more than two weeks and none of the six party leaders have made it north of 60°.

Maclean’s published its election primer on where the parties stand on the top 26 issues facing the nation, and the North wasn’t one of them. The CBC’s primer narrowed it down to just 17 issues, but we didn’t make that list either.

The Liberal government released its new Arctic policy on Sept. 10, the day before the campaign officially started, and it received as much press coverage as a black spruce sagging into the muskeg twenty miles north of Snag.

The document is the result of several years of work. It has nine principles and eight goals. The principles include partnership with Northerners, recognizing Indigenous rights, factoring climate change into decisions and ensuring development is sustainable and holistic. The goals include “Strengthened infrastructure that closes gaps with other regions of Canada” and that “Knowledge and understanding guides decision-making.”

While worthy, the policy’s principles are worded like an Ottawa legal brief. Principle 7, for example, is “The framework will respect a distinctions-based approach and ensure that the unique rights, interests and circumstances of Inuit, Arctic and northern First Nations and Métis are acknowledged, affirmed and implemented.”

Don’t expect to see inspirational quotes from the nation’s new Arctic policy on a t-shirt in a trendy Toronto cafe or going viral on Instagram. When the minister responsible tweeted our new policy, it got three comments and 78 likes globally.

The document is very much in line with current federal policy, with some minor expansions and additions. The feds will boost spending by over $700 million over ten years. That sounds good, but on an annual basis you would have to multiply it by 50 to have it represent one per cent of the federal budget.

If you were expecting game-changing moves in the North on infrastructure, economic development, defence or social issues, you’ll be disappointed.

However, at least the Liberals have an Arctic policy. The NDP and Green platforms include the word “Yukon” as often as “Timbuktoo.” The NDP mention “Arctic” once, while the Greens bring it up several times in areas such as Arctic food security, investing in naval and coast guard vessels that can operate in the Arctic, and funding “proper solid waste management systems.”

Both parties have a wide range of commitments to rural, northern and Arctic communities in areas such as renewable energy and housing. But signs of a grand northern vision are sparse.

The Conservative election platform hasn’t been released yet. When Conservative leader Andrew Scheer was in Whitehorse in July, he said that if he was elected prime minister he would boost infrastructure funding and reform the federal economic development agency here. He promised more details during the campaign, so there may be more Conservative ideas to come (as may be the case with the other leaders as the campaign unfolds).

Of course, sometimes it’s good not to be the object of grand visions. Russian President Vladimir Putin has put the development of Russia’s North high on the list of legacy accomplishments he wants to leave behind. It remains to be seen how much Siberians actually benefit from all those new railways, roads, nuclear power plants and military bases.

Even John Diefenbaker, who really did kick off his 1958 election campaign with the “Roads to Resources” concept, didn’t get much benefit from it. He did win a massive majority, but Liberal leader Lester Pearson mocked his Northern program as building roads “from igloo to igloo.” The Dempster Highway wasn’t completed for 20 years, and went more than 10 times over budget. The attempt to reorient Canada’s economy north was largely a failure, and our economic hubs integrated themselves into American supply chains and markets.

It’s not as if southern political leaders are anti-North. A fringe benefit of them not paying attention to us is that none of them are calling our transfer payment into question. Benign neglect has its benefits.

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 and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.