Instead of extracting resources and leaving, we could populate the mid-Canada corridor—and create a bigger, better country
FORTY-SEVEN YEARS AGO, perhaps in the outsized spirit of Expo 67, the retired major general and author Richard Rohmer put forward a bold proposal in Mid-Canada Development Corridor: A Concept. It described a vast landmass stretching from Newfoundland and Labrador across Quebec, Ontario, and the Prairies, to British Columbia and up through Northwest Territories and Yukon, occupying the area between southern settlements and the treeline—a band dominated by boreal forest. His idea was to implement a national strategy to develop and populate it.
Rohmer reasoned that Canada was poised to be a world leader in resource extraction, and that our future was tied to that endeavour. Mid-Canada was rich in minerals, oil, and gas, largely untouched, and had a habitable climate. The key to the plan was new infrastructure, which both the government and private sector would finance.
At the time, there were a few north–south arteries in place, and more were needed; east–west links needed improvement. Some existing settlements could be expanded to serve as urban hubs. The middle of the country could be settled in much the same way the West had been settled three generations earlier, when Canada saw its future in agriculture.
The plan was studied at various conferences, but the final version in 1971 failed to attract the needed support of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, so it eventually withered and died. In 2002, the concept had resurfaced and was floated past Prime Minister Jean Chrétien under the sails of northern Saskatchewan Liberal MP Rick Laliberte, who made a case for it as an instrument for that recurring and ephemeral Canadian trope: national unity.
Laliberte asked Chrétien to finance a mid-Canada policy and planning research institute, with the aim of weaving the country’s forgotten midland into the larger national fabric. While Chrétien was interested, he was soon distracted by more pressing issues (the sponsorship scandal; the ongoing death match with his finance minister Paul Martin), and once again the idea sank beneath the waves.
In the years since, and absent such a strategy, the mid-Canada corridor has been developed ad hoc, moving west from the East Coast: Newfoundland’s offshore oil; Labrador’s cobalt, copper, iron ore, and nickel; Quebec’s copper, hydro projects, and nickel; Ontario’s chromite, copper, and gold; Manitoba’s goldfields and nickel; Saskatchewan’s potash and uranium; Alberta’s oil sands; and, finally, British Columbia’s proposed liquid natural gas facilities and northern pipeline to Kitimat. But despite this activity, Rohmer’s plan is still worth revisiting because it addresses issues that are central to Canada’s future: climate change, immigration, resource extraction, urban growth, and—perhaps most urgently—Aboriginal relations.
EIGHTY PERCENT of the Canadian population lives within 160 kilometres of our southern border. The Far North, though largely unpopulated, has always been part of our national identity, and under Stephen Harper, who is keenly aware of threats to our northern sovereignty, it has become a strategic asset and an increasingly important site of natural-resource interests. But the millions of square kilometres in between these two areas have represented something of a forgotten zone, even though mid-Canada is quickly becoming the most productive part of the economy, defines our country internationally as a vast reservoir of natural resources, and is home to the majority of First Peoples in Canada.
Globally, the standard approach to mining has been to create a temporary settlement, extract the resource, and move on, leaving behind an environmental and societal mess. As an architect and planner with a special interest in mining regions and towns, I’ve seen the damage first-hand. For the companies doing the extraction, developing countries are ideal: labour is cheap, the enforcement of environmental restrictions lax, and legal recourse for aggrieved locals minimal.
This explains why these countries often end up poorer as a result of such projects. Nigeria is an example. While it has made hundreds of billions of dollars from oil, close to two-thirds of Nigeria’s 170 million people live in extreme poverty. The country exports millions of barrels of oil every day, but thanks to government corruption and anemic public institutions it lacks a reliable electrical grid to light workers’ homes.
To address the inequity between emerging economies and foreign investment giants, the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank’s private-sector lending arm, established performance standards for companies operating in the developing world. It provides broad guidance to “avoid, minimize, and, where residual impacts remain, to compensate/offset for risks and impacts to workers, Affected Communities, and the environment.” The standards include detailed protocols to encourage transparency, inclusion, and the creation of grievance mechanisms. There are also rules for pollution prevention and abatement. Most international resource companies now abide by the IFC guidelines—doing so makes getting financing easier.
Unfortunately, IFC guidelines don’t apply to corporations operating in developed countries. So while Canada faces many of the same issues as developing countries—exploitation of Indigenous peoples, internal migration to jobs that leads to significant population shifts, and environmental degradation—there’s an assumption that existing regulations will force resource companies to behave responsibly. The problem is that Canada’s environmental laws were weakened in 2012 by the passage of Bills C-38 and C-45, which amended or repealed ten pieces of important legislation, including the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act.
Besides our three oceans, the renamed Navigation Protection Act safeguards only sixty-two rivers and ninety-seven lakes—roughly one percent of the country’s waterways. “The Conservative agenda,” writes Megan Leslie, NDP MP for Halifax, “systematically dismantles any environmental legislation that might restrict unbridled expansion of their resource exploitation agenda.”
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