Some northerners have argued that their communities should have the same level of government services as southerners – no more and no less. But of course that is impossible. Northern Canadians will never have the same level of services as southern Canadians, not because they are northern, or aboriginal, but because they are rural. A gap exists around the world in the level of development between those who live in urban areas and those who live in rural areas, and it is unlikely to get smaller. That is why migration is almost exclusively in the direction of rural to urban no matter what country you live in.
Yet we continue to compare the quality of life and standard of living between North and South as though the objective is to make them the same. I am as guilty as anyone. I frequently trot out figures about the poverty of the North, particularly in regions with high aboriginal populations, to underscore the urgency and need for improvement in the social and economic development of the North. Similarly, the Conference Board of Canada has done an excellent job of parsing out Census statistics to highlight the poverty; crime, lack of educational attainment, housing, and lower life expectancies. It is compelling stuff. But how fair is the comparison – both to governments and communities?
Delivering services in the North
First the governments: how can we expect them (local, provincial/territorial, federal) to provide an equal level of services and a comparable level of development to all Canadians when conditions across the country are so different? The North, in particular, is a difficult place to provide all the trappings of the welfare state. A lack of infrastructure makes it expensive to provide fresh food, gas and heat at prices that are comparable to those in the south. A lack of skilled labour – nurses, doctors, physiotherapists, pharmacists – makes it difficult to provide medical services in the North on par with that found in cities. Recreational activities and facilities are fewer and further between. Basic municipal services – waste management, protective services, public transportation – suffer from a lack of an economy of scale where they exist at all. And as we’re seeing in the context of the global recession, governments can raise and lower interests rates, provide tax breaks, and invest in infrastructure; but try as they might they can’t reliably make jobs. As long as high unemployment exists in some northern communities, there will be issues of poverty, alcoholism, anomie and domestic abuse.
If it’s unfair to blame governments for the comparatively low level of services in the North, it is also unfair to blame northern communities for not achieving southern levels of development. Well-being can be measured in terms of income, life expectancy and literacy (the staples of the UN’s Human Development Index), but it can also be measured in terms of attachment to the land, family and community. It can be measured in terms of cultural retention. And it can be measured in terms of happiness. A number of projects have attempted to develop such alternative measures of well-being. One of them, the Survey of Living Conditions in the Arctic (SLiCA), provides a measurement of well-being based on indicators that northerners view as the most important to them. The conclusion is not that life in the North is without its problems; turns out a decent income, literacy and a high life expectancy is a pretty good thing for anybody. But it does provide a framework to compare well-being between regions that have similar lifestyles and values, in order to gauge how they stack up against other northern, rather than southern, communities.
What everyone will agree on is that northerners need better services than what they have access to now. There is always a better way to a better way and we all have a responsibility to look for it. But northern communities are not likely to ever achieve the same level of development as in the South, and those who want to have access to the kinds of services available in Edmonton or Ottawa or Montreal should move there. Some have. Many others have chosen the lifestyle that is only available in the North and the different kind of well-being that it offers. Not more and not less – just different.