Blog: Why northern development is hard

Ulukhaktok, an Arctic community in Canada's Northwest Territories. In the years ahead, what will development look like in remote communities like this one? (Eilís Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)
Ulukhaktok, an Arctic community in Canada’s Northwest Territories. In the years ahead, what will development look like in remote communities like this one? (Eilís Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)
Everyone seems to love simplifications these days; maybe it’s always been so.

We want to be told that solutions to our problems are just around the corner, if only the problem had the political will, or the awareness of the general public, or the attention of the Prime Minister, or the funding. This propensity seems particularly acute in the North, despite decades of evidence to the contrary.

Here is what I know for sure: northern development is hard. Not just hard; wicked. Wicked problems are famously those that are difficult or impossible to solve because there is no agreement on the nature of the problem or the desired solution. Attempts at solutions usually result in unintended consequences and new sets of problems. And every problem is really just a symptom of another, even more difficult, problem.

Let me provide an example.  The CBC reported last Fall that a lack of daycare in Resolute Bay and Arctic Bay was a barrier to people finding jobs.  The Government of Nunavut had built daycares in those communities, but like many daycares in Nunavut and Nunavik, the buildings had been closed for lengthy amounts of time due to construction, maintenance and repair issues. At any rate, fixing the build is a “fairly easy fix”.  The wicked problem is that there is no one in the community ready to operate a daycare, a reflection of the capacity challenge in many northern communities.  Even when daycare buildings are usable and have staff to operate them, many Inuit parents cannot afford to send their children there. The Government of Nunavut offers a daycare subsidy but it often goes unused simply because parents do not know the subsidy exists; or the application process is too arduous and lengthy for them to complete.  The result is that parents are less likely to be employed, leading to a host of social ills (poverty, depression) that are well documented elsewhere.

Now let me ask: which is the “real” problem in that scenario needing to be addressed, and which is merely the symptom?

Out of the Pot and Into the Frying Pan

The entire modern history of northern development reads like a tale of unintended consequences, a road to hell paved with the best intentions of the policy mandarins of the day. One, abbreviated, version might read like this: traditional indigenous societies had no access to health care and education and were increasingly subject to famine, so colonial governments settled them into communities where they could be near clinics and schools and fall under their paternalistic control. This destroyed traditional livelihoods so the federal government minimally subsidized their food and shelter.  This created dependence and led to depression and substance abuse. The ineptitude of government policy led to movements and some subsequent achievement of self-determination and self-government.  But many northern communities and societies had little administrative education or experience, leading to current poor management of social services, health care and education and an inability to raise sufficient revenues to pay for needed services.  Subsequent reliance on the federal government to provide financial resources to fulfill those governing responsibilities has perversely exacerbated reliance on the Canadian state.

A head-spinning tale, indeed.

Particularly Hard Problems

Amidst the dozens of challenges to northern development I have observed in the past decade, the following stand out to me as fundamental, from a public policy point of view.

The first is economy of scale.  I think most Canadian citizens support Northerners’ right to self-determination, and at any rate since the concept was enshrined in the Atlantic Charter in 1941, it has become the cardinal principle of the modern international system and now a feature of Canadian constitutionalism.  The problem in the Arctic is that nations and societies are numerically small, and it is very difficult, if not impossible, to fund and deliver the range of social services expected in the modern welfare state at the scale that northern communities encompass.

Second, “technology” is often considered a potential solution to address the problem of scale, but it brings its own sets of challenges.  It may be technically possible to invent small scale waste water, food-growing, or district heating systems. But if Northerners are not equipped themselves to install, operate, maintain and fund these systems, then they will only reinforce dependency on outside labour and resources without building the capacity and self-sufficiency of community members.  Many communities are still struggling, after decades, to even staff their schools and health clinics with qualified locals. Ideally more Northerners would be trained as professionals for the community, but this implies access to high quality primary, secondary and post-secondary training, which is well documented to be a challenge in the North, especially outside the territorial and regional administrative capitals.

This leads to what is perhaps the most wicked of northern development problems: whether to prepare northern youth for careers in the modern economy, requiring further investment in STEM education and English language proficiency; or whether to focus on educating northern youth in traditional skills such as indigenous language and writing systems, and cultural learnings such as on-the-land teaching about hunting, harvesting, sewing and tool making.  There is not yet consensus on the answer, and it has led to a cleavage on perhaps the most fundamental economic question of the day in the Arctic: whether to exploit and extract natural resources, providing jobs and public revenues; or whether to preserve the environment in order to support traditional hunting lifestyles and the integrity of indigenous culture.  Almost everyone hopes to find a third way, where these interests can be balanced. But hard compromises look inevitable.

The Road Not Taken

Amidst the least worst policy options, one seems particularly detrimental, and that is relying on the Canadian government to develop and implement solutions.  Emphatically, the federal government cannot fix the problems of northern development, irrespective of whether it should.

This is not to ignore the fact that Canada’s North, in particular, relies on federal transfers to pay for essential services that are every Canadian’s right.  I would not advocate for any cold turkey approach to eliminating such transfers, but rather would look to the day when such transfers become smaller and smaller percentages of northern public coffers.   The one number that keeps me up at night is this: $40,364.  That is the amount, per capita, that the Government of Canada will transfer to the Government of Nunavut for fiscal year 2016-17, totalling $1.514 billion, and exclusive of federal ministry spending.  It keeps me up at night because it tells me that no amount of money can buy development.  It demands struggle.

(For comparison, NWT will get $28,351 and Yukon $24,333, compared to $1,366 for each of the “have” provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland. Greenland receives 3.6 billion krone annually from Denmark, or about $12,842 CAD/capita).

Federal subsidies for public spending have not just been benignly inadequate; it can also be argued that they have been harmful.  In many indigenous communities in particular, they can be seen to have precluded either the return to a traditional economy, or the healthy development of a modern one.  The term “Dutch Disease” is apt here: the economic phenomenon when the increase in one sector (in this case the public sector) precipitates a stifling or decline in others.  Private business, especially small and medium enterprises, find it exceedingly difficult to compete with the wages and benefits offered by the public sector in the North, or even with the social welfare safety net.  Minimum wage in the North is far from a living wage amidst high housing, food and energy costs, and the inflationary effects of federal spending has exacerbated these.

Fate Control

One of the most relevant concepts I have come across is that of “fate control”, popularized in Arctic studies by the Arctic Social Indicators project, and defined as the ability to guide one’s own destiny.  It is at the root of self-determination, but also of self-confidence, community empowerment and mental well-being.  As long as the view prevails across the North that the federal government is at the root of all problems as well as the source of all solutions, Northerners will not feel, or in practice be, in control of their own fate.

At the end of the day, northern development will be precipitated only by a growth in the capacity of Northerners to self-govern and self-determine, and there is no doubt this is happening, if incrementally.  Mere platitudes about improving education and economic development will not advance these efforts; only real progress towards those ends will. But who gets to decide what “real” progress looks like in the context of the North?  Now that is a wicked question.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Northern Canada doesn’t have a university … Does it need one?, Blog by Heather Exner-Pirot

Finland: Sámi classes breathe new life into Finland’s rarest languages, Barents Observer

Greenland: (VIDEO) The importance of perserving the Inuit language, Eye on the Arctic

Norway:  Stop romanticizing Arctic development say indigenous leaders, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden:  Sami demand rights as indigenous people, Radio Sweden

United States:  Arctic Energy Summit – What can polar regions learn from each other?, Eye on the Arctic










Heather Exner-Pirot

Heather Exner-Pirot is the Managing Editor of the Arctic Yearbook, a Fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute, and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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