The North’s resource boom: Is it prosperity or exploitation? – ‘ARCTIC CIRCLE’ PANEL (Globe and Mail – January 21, 2014)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

Doug Saunders: In recent years, the North has taken on a new political and economic prominence in Canada. Will this create a new era of prosperity and independence for northern communities, or does it bring a risk of exploitation and damage to communities and environments?

Michael Byers: Despite the increased media attention, Canada lags far behind other Arctic countries in seizing the opportunities presented by rising resource prices and retreating sea ice. Russia generates more than 20 per cent of its GDP from the Arctic. Norway profits from being the world leader in the high-tech field of Arctic oil and gas. Iceland has turned itself into a global tourist destination. As for Canada, consider this: Despite having the longest coastline of any of the Arctic countries, our most northern port is at Churchill – in Manitoba. Balancing economic development, local governance and environmental protection will never be easy. But serious investments in infrastructure – including a port at Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut – would be a good start.

Rob Huebert: The economics of the north have been fundamentally changing. The development of the diamond industry has already changed much of what happens in numerous aspects of the Northwest Territory. Ultimately, it is never an issue of having economic development or not, but rather a question of what you do with economic potential when you have the opportunity.

After all, it is hard to think of any other part of Canada where there is serious discussion of not developing a resource (the decision to build a pipeline to carry someone else’s resources notwithstanding!). The question in all of Canada – including the North – is always over the manner in which it is developed and how to distribute the returns.

Shelagh Grant: As a historian, the excitement and hyperbole attached to the prospect of extensive mineral and fossil-fuel development in the Canadian North reminds me of the promises associated with the building of the CPR and the Yukon Gold Rush. While the potential for new economic development is indeed exciting, second sober thoughts should consider the consequences for the predominately indigenous, northern communities.

At present, the potential for this new economic growth would come from the extraction of non-renewable resources and their related support industries, which history has shown will have only a short-term and very limited benefit for indigenous people – likely with severe negative social consequences. If these new industries are Canadian-owned, the major benefits will go to the southern-based corporations. If foreign-owned, the profits will go elsewhere with the federal government benefiting from taxes and royalties. Then there is the problem of finding a sufficient source of skilled labour. Chinese companies, in particular, prefer to use their own labourers.

For anyone who has visited an open-pit mine in the north, the ecological consequences are obvious. Although oil and gas developments are less detrimental to the environment, the risks of a major oil spill could be catastrophic. Yet far too often, environmental issues gain more publicity than the more subtle social and economic questions.

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