Residents of smaller communities are far more engaged than Iqaluit residents when it comes to interest in their economic future, Deputy Minister of Economic Development and Transportation (EDT) told an early-morning crowd in the capital.
Sherri Rowe, the Iqaluit Chamber of Commerce's monthly guest at its breakfast-speaker series, told those assembled May 25 that the department had recently completed a round of consultations for its new Nunavut Economic Development Strategy.
"When we have consultations it's really important for people to come out and voice their concerns," said Rowe. "For the strategy, we went to every single community. In Iqaluit, guess how many people came out? Six. And we know what's going to happen, right? At the end of this, we're going to create a report, and everyone's going to say, 'I wasn't consulted.' Only six people showed up."
Asked about attendance in communities, Rowe said it was "really good."
"In some of the smaller communities we had 100 people."
Iqaluit resident Franco Buscemi asked Rowe her thoughts on "the culture of fear developed by Inuit organizations and the GN."
"Employees are pretty much deterred from engaging publicly, even if they're not at director level. How much is that contributing to turnout," he asked.
Rowe said her personal belief is that's not part of the problem.
"For marine infrastructure, we had staff members that were out voicing their concerns. Voicing concerns is one thing. It's different if you're getting up and criticizing the government. But everyone has a right to be out there to get their thoughts heard."
Why does this matter?
Because Rowe, who has lived in the capital for more than a quarter of century, says this moment in time is a very important one for the territory's development.
"Historically, our territory's most significant growth arose from the rapid increase in public spending and infrastructure investment related to the creation of the territory, the territorial government and related entities," she said.
Mining, tourism and arts and the emerging fishery, which holds much promise, are now all contributing to a new economic high.
"In reflecting on where we are today, while all levels of government still play a central role in Nunavut's economy, Nunavut now has a consumer market that didn't exist two decades ago," said Rowe, adding the business community is critical to helping generate new opportunities.
Rowe cited the Conference Board of Canada which predicted that in 2017 the territory's economy would grow by almost five per cent, surpassing much of Canada.
"Our own analysts predict a doubling of mining production by 2020," she said. "That translates into an annual growth rate of five per cent for the next four years."
The evidence of the trend already exists, according to Rowe.
"With the exception of the Yukon at eight per cent, Nunavut led the country with a reported 3.9 per cent increase in GDP (gross domestic product) in 2016," she said, adding that's an increase of 1.3 per cent from 2015.
The national percentage is 1.3.
While devolution might increase these numbers, Rowe nevertheless doesn't think the territory will see a repeat of the growth it saw at the birth of the territory.
"The more important weight of future business growth will come from the growth of the mining sector and continued infrastructure spending. It will be driven by business opportunities in mining and exploration," said Row, pointing the growth in all three regions especially in the past six years.
Rowe also sees many more Inuit entering the public service and advancing to increasingly senior roles.
"And my prediction is that Nunavut businesses that will be most successful over the next 25 years will be the ones that position themselves to take advantage of opportunities in the mining sector, as well as those catering to a growing consumer base."
Noting a 2015 visitor exit survey, Rowe said business travel represents the greatest proportion of non-resident visitors – 11,550 that year.
"Turning these visitors into tourists or encouraging them to return with their families represents an untapped opportunity."
One attendee remarked that as compared to Greenland, which invests in its service industry, Nunavut's service standards are low.
"The level of service is astonishing," he said. "Whether it was financial clerks, food service, no matter what part of the economy you touched there were trained people that had real training, orientation, messaging. You couldn't wait to go back."
He said one reason for that was a well-established hospitality college in a small community.
"We're not really aware of the sophistication and levels of service available throughout the circumpolar world. I really would make an appeal that we look at success models elsewhere, and related ones in Alaska and Yukon, and we create a task force for a long-term strategy."
Rowe said she noticed the same thing about Greenland.
Nunavut Tourism's executive director Kevin Kelly jumped in and said there are programs developed.
"Arctic College tourism programs, from customer service right up to guide level one and guide level two training course. They're there, they're available, they've been translated into both Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun – but the problem is money. And, of course, being able to figure out where those programs need to be offered," said Kelly.
"EDT and Nunavut Tourism are certainly working in collaboration to develop these programs so they are funded and sustained for a long period of time so people can get the training they need to take advantage of the massive tourism opportunities that are out there."
As regards transportation into the territory, Rowe said her department was happy to see the Auditor General of Canada's report on airport infrastructure in the North, adding the department commissioned its own report completed in 2014.
"(It was) estimated that 463 million was needed over the next 20 years to meet the infrastructure needs of our 24 airports outside of Iqaluit, which includes $76 million to relocate two airports to meet Transport Canada's safety regulations."
Federal funding for Northern airport maintenance has not increased since 2000, a fact noted by the auditor general's report.
"We look forward to seeing what action plans will be adopted by Transport Canada."
The next breakfast speaker event is scheduled for June 21 with the subject of carbon tax.