Andrew Livingstone/NNSL photo
NWT Premier Bob McLeod addresses the Vancouver Board of Trade while in B.C. last month for a mining conference.

Northerners are a quiet, peaceful, and co-operative people. We don’t air our grievances in public. We don’t complain.

As premier of the Northwest Territories, it took an immense degree of frustration and concern to provoke the Red Alert Statement I issued to southern Canadians last November. More recently, that same concern brought me to Vancouver to engage with a wide variety of British Columbians: students, municipal and provincial government officials, environmentalists, and business and industry leaders. And finally, worry for the future of the North is why I’m sending this message to you now.

The promise of the North is fading, due in part to short-sightedness and inattention from southern Canada. Reconciliation was a fact of life for our government years before it gained national prominence. Five of the seven cabinet ministers if the government of the Northwest Territories are indigenous. As am I. We have forged a relationship and partnership with indigenous governments based on mutual respect and recognition, that is leading the way to increased self-determination, and more opportunities for indigenous participation in the economy.

Right now, resource development is the engine of the Northwest Territories’ economy and a significant source of middle-class jobs and business opportunities. But the Northwest Territories does not exist in isolation. We have a small open economy that is subject to external pressures like the global financial crisis 10 years ago and weak commodity prices. Between 2007 and 2016, the territorial economy declined from $4.5 billion to $3.7 billion.

Restrictions imposed on our vital energy and resource sector — the single biggest contributor to the NWT economy and source of middle-class jobs and incomes for many of our people — are driving companies away, and with that go the jobs that sustain healthy families and communities. Staying in or trying to join the middle class will become a distant dream for many.

That is why I took such exception to Canada’s unilateral decision to impose a moratorium on oil and gas development in the Beaufort Sea a little more than a year ago.

I’m a realist, I understand that development is primarily a business decision and that current low prices are a disincentive to oil and gas development. Still, the decision to permanently take a significant economic opportunity for the Northwest Territories off the table with no discussion and no plan to replace its value for our people seems short-sighted at best, and certainly doesn’t take Northern needs, priorities, or self-determination into account.

Decisions about the North should be made in the North. A strong, thriving economy in the Northwest Territories is a crucial part of a successful model for Indigenous reconciliation that could serve as a guide for the rest of the country.

Protecting the promise of the North and saving the northern dream requires all Canadians to join together. It requires a national debate. The time is upon us to reset the course of the North. Meaningful reconciliation requires it, and the dream of a strong and prosperous North depends on it.

(This was first published in the Vancouver Sun on Jan. 29)

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