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'Where is Canada?' territorial politicians ask amid international interest in Arctic

Premier Bob McLeod during an interview with Yellowknifer on Dec. 20, 2017. In it, he admitted the mid-term performance review – the first in 20 years – took politicians and staff away from working on the GNWT's public mandate. James O'Connor/NNSLphoto

A number of territorial politicians have voiced concerns as the international race for the Arctic heats up.

Canada made a competing claim to the North Pole against Russia and Denmark just weeks after Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state, called Canada’s claim to the Northwest Passage “illegitimate.”

In the midst of international interest in the Arctic, territorial politicians are asking, where is Canada?

On the first day of the legislative assembly's third session, NWT Premier Bob McLeod blasted the federal government over its lack of involvement in the Arctic.

NWT Premier Bob McLeod. NNSL photo

“The Arctic has always been an important symbol for Canada, a geographic statement of our place of status in the world as a Northern power,” said McLeod.

“Unfortunately, Canada’s interest in and attention to the Arctic has often been symbolic, at best. Generations of southern Canadians and their governments have grown used to thinking of the North as a vast and inaccessible place, valued most for its emptiness.”

But this view of the Arctic is not shared by other nations. Based on conversations he's had with other leaders, McLeod said international interest in the Arctic is "immense."

This map of the circumpolar world hangs in the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre (PWNHC). Meaghan Richens/NNSL photo.

“Canada is alone when it comes to inaction in the Arctic,” he said.

China and Russia both see opportunity in the Arctic, especially as melting sea ice creates an opportunity for new shipping routes. While Russia already has a nuclear icebreaker, China reportedly has plans for its own and released a white paper outlining its Arctic Policy in January 2018. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski introduced two pieces of Arctic-related legislation in April.

Although the federal government is developing a new Arctic Policy Framework "to identify and build a long-term vision to 2030 for the Canadian and circumpolar Arctic," it's not clear when it will be released.

According to the feds, the framework will be "will be co-developed in collaboration with Indigenous, territorial and provincial partners," and a series of invitation-only regional roundtable meetings were held across the country's northern regions from October 2017 to March 2018 to gather input.

But McLeod said residents of the three Northern territories should have a leading say in Canada’s plan for the Arctic.

“We are the ones who live here," he said.

"We are the ones who are repeatedly affected when decisions are made for us, rather than with us.”

McLeod repeated his calls for an increased military presence in the North and emphasized the need for southern policymakers to know and understand the territories in order to make decisions about them.

“Simply put, Canada needs to be in the Arctic if it wants to have a say in what happens in the Arctic," he said.

“As a Northern nation, Canada should make it a priority to ensure that more of its citizens have an opportunity to experience the Arctic and learn what it really means to be Northern.”

Northerners setting the plan for the North has been a priority of the GNWT for years, he said.

“Devolution was all about Northerners being able to make their own decisions about how the land, environment and resources of the Northwest Territories are managed,” said McLeod.

A number of bills currently before committee seek to improve legislation managing land and resources that were transferred from the federal government at devolution in 2014, he added.

At the federal level, one of the bills aiming to do this is Bill C-88.

What is Bill C-88 and why does it matter?

Premier McLeod went to Ottawa in support of Bill C-88, a federal bill proposing amendments to both the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act (MVRMA) and the Canada Petroleum Resources Act (CPRA).

Specifically, the bill would reverse not-in-force amendments to the MVRMA from 2014 that restructured the land and water board system in the Mackenzie Valley, while bringing into force amendments about "issuing enforceable development certificates, introducing cost recovery and administrative monetary penalty schemes" and establishing a committee to conduct studies examining the effects of existing or future development on a regional basis.

The bill also amends the CPRA to give the federal government power to "issue an order prohibiting certain works or activities on federal Crown lands in the North and in the Arctic offshore when in the national interest," according to a legislative summary from the Library of Parliament.

After the Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs held a clause-by-clause review of Bill C-88 last week - and made no amendments -  it is now headed for third reading.

According to Wally Schumann, minister of both Infrastructure as well as Industry, Tourism and Investment, the territorial government has formally started negotiations on an agreement "for the management of oil and gas resources in the Arctic offshore that we hope will result in a new offshore oil and gas regime comparable to those already in place off Canada's east coast."

Wally Schumann, Minister of Infrastructure and ITI. NNSL photo.

While Schumann echoed some of the premier's sentiments in the legislative assembly on May 27, he also expressed disappointment with the way the offshore oil and gas moratorium was imposed in the NWT.

“While controversy rages across Canada over pipeline megaprojects to move gas to tidewater, more than six trillion cubic feet of defined NWT gas sits in our Mackenzie Delta - just a short pipeline away from the Arctic Coast," said Schumann.

Once destined to head south through the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline, the territory's reserves of liquefied natural gas (LNG) could soon find another route north to Asia.

The NWT has been approached by investors interested in transporting its LNG resources "from the Arctic Coast where the Beaufort Sea offers a route to the Bering Strait and on to Tokyo," said Schumann.

"Technological advances mean that once these resources reach the coast, they could be processed and distributed for transportation from floating platforms where ships capable of navigating through Arctic ice can make the journey to Asia."

Arctic activities will impact Inuit: MLA

When European explorers first started looking at the Northwest Passage in the 19th century, they also did so thinking it would be a shorter route for trade ports in Asia said Herbert Nakimayak, MLA for Nunakput.

Herb Nakimayak, MLA for Nunakput. NNSL photo

"No thought was given to the Indigenous people who had been living on the Arctic coast long before time was recorded," he said. 

"This state of mind still exists today."

The development of marine passageways, trade and other activities will have a major impact on Inuit people and their way of life, said Nakimayak.

"Climate change is already having a drastic effect on the Arctic environment, including the Inuvialuit and the wildlife," he said.

If the Northwest Passage is made international waters, there are no controls over who is allowed to travel in the ecologically sensitive area he added.

"The damage to the environment that sustains us will be certain and immediate," said Nakimayak.

"There is much risk to the lands, waters, and animals that are central to our way of life. Unregulated marine traffic through the passage will irrevocably change both environment and Inuit who rely upon it."

Wally Schumann, Minister of Infrastructure and ITI. NNSL photo.
Wally Schumann, Minister of Infrastructure and ITI. NNSL photo.