The North has largely been off the Canadian news clips and out of the consciousness of the Canadian public, with but a few exceptions like former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s focus on Northern sovereignty and defence and his “use it or lose it” rhetoric and more recently, the late Gord Downie’s shout out to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at The Tragically Hip’s farewell-tour finale-concert in Kingston, Ontario.
“We’re in good hands, folks, real good hands. [Trudeau] cares about the people way up North, that we were trained our entire lives to ignore, trained our entire lives to hear not a word of what’s going on up there.”
Trudeau has indeed broadened Canada’s Arctic policy to deal with more than the territory-based issues and to address the people and community issues alluded to by Gord Downie. And while he hasn’t spent as much time up North or faced the cameras on the issue, he did commission the new Arctic and Northern Policy Framework (ANPF).
However, as soon as the ANPF was published, the writ was dropped on the Canadian Federal election and for the duration of the campaign, just as in the words of Gord Downie, Canadians were “to hear not a word of what’s going on up there.”
The ANPF is broad in scope, aspirational in nature and is the product of a truly collaborative effort including a whole of Federal government contingent, representatives of our three Northern Territorial governments, and our national and regional Indigenous organizations. It is this co-authorship approach that really sets the ANPF apart from previous Canadian Arctic policies including the Harper-era Northern Strategy.
While the Arctic was not making the news at home, it was certainly making headlines elsewhere in the world. Early in October, for instance, Iceland hosted its annual Arctic Circle Assembly, described by Bloomberg as a kind of Davos for the far north. The seven-year-old event is the largest annual forum for politicians, scientists, environmentalists, industrialists and others to talk about the Arctic, including climate change, security and sustainable development.
This was my third time attending the Assembly, and my first-time representing Hill+Knowlton Strategies Canada with whom I am associated. I was struck by the sense of urgency at this year’s meeting. The Arctic is indeed changing rapidly, both climactically and geopolitically, and those rapid changes are spawning a wide range of both opportunities and threats to Arctic states, peoples, and stakeholders. National, subnational, business and thought leaders from around the circumpolar world addressed the audience with their visions and plans and delivered megaprojects to deal with these pressing needs.
For my part, I moderated a panel of distinguished Canadian Arctic experts and practitioners including Iqaluit Mayor (since retired) Madeleine Redfern, Nunavut Fisheries Association Executive Director Brian Burke, noted Canadian Arctic academic John Higginbotham, and Deputy Secretary of Federal Engagement for the Northwest Territories Catherine MacQuarrie on the topic of their visions to move the ANPF forward.
The answer to that question comes down to leadership applied across a broad range of sectors, such as health and wellness, government and public sector, energy and industrials, and transportation and mobility. Thanks to the ANPF we know what we need to do in Canada’s North. We need inspired and enabled leaders to make it happen, ably supported by a team of specialists in those sectors.
The good news is that leadership can come from a variety of places. The appointment of a stand-alone Minister of Northern Affairs is a welcomed move for Canada’s North. Dan Vandal, who hails from Winnipeg, became well-regarded in the previous Parliament through his position as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Indigenous Services. He was a trusted advisor to the Minister and a quick study on complex issues. While his challenge is to become familiar with the unique challenges and opportunities facing northern matters, the North once again has a strong representation at the Cabinet table to the likes not seen since the days of influential leaders such as Ethel Blondin-Andrew and Eric Nielsen. We can expect to see the finalization and implementation of the ANPF in his mandate letter.
Also at the cabinet table is Minister Mélanie Joly whose portfolio includes Economic Development. Reporting to her will be all the regional development agencies including the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency (CANNOR) and perhaps an associated, yet to be announced Secretary of State from the North (Larry Bagnell from the Yukon or Michael McLeod from the Northwest Territories).
Augmenting and working in partnership with the Federal cabinet, we need leaders backed up by capacity from our Territorial governments, we need passionate and pragmatic leadership from our Indigenous organizations and governments, and we need strong and well-supported Arctic business leaders.
Those emerging Northern and Arctic leaders will need to be equipped with the strategic, communications, public affairs, and procurement support they need to help them ensure that Canada is a leader in sustainable and healthy Arctic development and not a casualty of the rest of the world’s Arctic agendas.
It will take inspired leaders working across many sectors to build our Northern nation. Simply put, we need to have their back.