The federal government’s recent decision to extend its suspension on drilling in the Beaufort Sea is not surprising, considering the harsh environmental impacts and low demand for oil and gas.

What was surprising was Premier Caroline Cochrane saying she did not have an opinion on this matter.

It is curious how the premier of a territory so hard hit by climate change could not have an opinion on this. If this signaled anything, it is the territories’ continued lack of political will to deal with the climate change crisis even though no other issue is hitting the North as hard as this one.

Climate change did not even make this government’s top-10 priority list when it took office a few years ago.

The federal government banned the issuance of new offshore oil and gas licenses in Canadian Arctic waters in 2016, making the moratorium indefinite much to the chagrin of then-Premier Bob McLeod. We know that the ban was enacted to protect the environment and put in safeguards for the mammal population which was suffering from the noise of the drilling. This made international news.

In 2019, Ottawa expanded restrictions prohibiting all oil and gas work in offshore waters. It said that ban would remain in place until the end of last year. However, in early January, the feds said the prohibition order would be extended as long as the 2016 moratorium stayed.

Jackie Jacobson, MLA for Nunakput, responded quickly, saying the moratorium needs to be lifted to create more opportunities for local residents.

Quoted in a CBC article, Jacobson said that ‘… right now, people are really suffering in regards to work … it’s like we’re just destitute.”

There is no doubt that people in the far North are seriously hurting and the pain of poverty and lack of employment is likely one of the major drivers behind the high mental health crisis and high suicide rates. But this is a time to be creative, to seek new initiatives and head in a different direction. It is not the time to fall back on industries in their death throes.

What we are experiencing in the far North is similar to what Alberta saw when the oil and gas industry there was dying, too. However, the difference was that workers in the oil patch were crying out for training in green-energy initiatives learning how to make and install solar panels, wind turbines, anything that was leading us into a more sustainable lifestyle. The Alberta government failed to respond, keeping all its eggs in old baskets.

We are doing that in the North, too. We do have sporadic initiatives taking place, but the territorial government, as demonstrated in its new energy strategy paper, is not looking forward with new initiatives either. Stuck in its old ways, the territorial government is dropping the eight-ball on preparing the North for a new sustainable future and the onslaught of climate catastrophes yet to come.

The premier needs to have an opinion on this.

In a recent letter to cabinet commenting on the Energy Initiatives Report, Alternatives North, in its concluding paragraph offered that ‘the GNWTs lack of progress (in reducing emissions to combat climate change) is not due to a lack of capacity … or lack of demand for effective action. Rather, it is a deliberate choice to use climate funding to support projects that reduced emissions somewhat, but are primarily focused on other priorities like subsidizing future mining development’.

What this means, of course, is that the government is showing that it is not willing or able to think outside the box and lead us to a more hopeful future. We need real leadership.

Jacobson is right to be upset. But he needs to take his frustration out on a government that is not providing people with the opportunities and money — which is there — to adapt to a changing future. If we are learning anything from this dependence on fossil fuels and mining, it is that we need to better focus on how we can develop the skills and local industry necessary to survive what’s to come.

The immediate future looks bleak and will continue to do that until we learn more creative solutions and prove that the political will to do that is there. Relying on what use to work, the very things that have brought us to this precipice, will not get us out of this predicament.

All of us need to have an opinion on that.

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