Senate report calls on Ottawa to fix ‘neglected’ Arctic

Canada’s Northern regions have been neglected, overlooked, and passed by for far too long. And it’s time for Canada to “wake up.”

That was the message out of the Senate on Wednesday morning as its special committee on the Arctic presented a 139-page report which, in a shotgun approach, outlined several issues plaguing Northerners, and called on Ottawa to fix them once and for all.

The report, titled Northern Lights: A Wake-up Call For the Future of Canada, was a year in the making. It highlights everything from infrastructure gaps, including the lack of broadband internet, to how Arctic policy is being developed by “well-intentioned but ignorant” southern bureaucrats — as Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson put it, who chaired the Senate’s special committee on the Arctic.

While the issues presented in the report are nothing new to Northerners, Patterson said the goal of the report for Northerners is to empower them to take over federal programs which are being managed in the south.

“Everybody talks about devolution of lands and resources. But there’s a whole array of other federal programs and services that are Ottawa-based, and should be delivered in the North,” Patterson told CBC News in an interview, adding a big theme of the report is letting Northerners take charge of their lives.

“When the Ottawa bureaucrats that we see in our committees come forward and talk about designing and delivering programs for the North, it gets me angry because they are so obviously ignorant of the realities that are in place by those of us who live there.”

Patterson pointed to renewable energy in the North as one example, saying there are programs within different federal departments designed to wean Northern communities off diesel power, but nothing ever comes to fruition.

“They’re disconnected and don’t seem to be responsive,” Patterson said, adding it’s just one example of many.

“And so nothing’s happening. Despite these great sounding announcements, we’re not seeing any results.”

Report recommendations focused on more support for Arctic regions

The report makes 30 recommendations for Ottawa to consider, including creating an Arctic Infrastructure Bank, separate from the Canada Infrastructure Bank launched in 2017.

“Most Northerners say the priorities seem to be shortening commuting times in the major southern cities,” Patterson said at a press conference Wednesday morning.

He said it’s not only buildings and roads the North needs, but also vital telecommunications upgrades.

“This idea is really all about making sure that the North is not left out when Canada spends gobs of money on infrastructure programs,” Patterson later told CBC.

Specific to buildings and roads, however, the report highlighted the threat to existing infrastructure from thawing permafrost due to climate change.

“The Northwest Territories Association of Communities estimates annual economic losses in the millions of dollars on community assets due to permafrost decay,” the committee found, while calling on Ottawa to complete a new building code adapted to Arctic conditions and the effects of climate change.

The committee also recommended Ottawa appoint a Minister of Northern Affairs with control of their own ministry and budget.

While Northern affairs is wrapped up in federal minister Dominic LeBlanc’s portfolio, Patterson said there’s been confusion among Northern partners as to which federal minister they’re supposed to be dealing with, depending on the issue, since the split of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada last year.

“I think one of the things that is surprising to my colleagues in the Senate is it’s really not clear who’s responsible for Northern affairs,” he said.

Laying the foundation for an Arctic Policy Framework

Notably, the report’s release precedes the federal government’s unveiling of the Arctic Policy Framework, which the committee believed would be released by now — as it was told by Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett back in February.

Patterson said the committee hopes the government will use the report to inform the framework.

“I know a great deal of work has been done by Canada in consulting widely about what should be in an Arctic Policy Framework. But we’re still waiting for the Arctic Policy Framework,” Patterson told reporters at the press conference.

“We’re very much hoping this fairly comprehensive report … will actually help to put flesh on those bones.”

Patterson later told CBC News that the wide-ranging shotgun approach taken in the report was because there’s no guarantee the Senate’s special committee on the Arctic will still be around after October’s federal election, since its mandate was only for the life of the current government.

“It was felt important to try and cover as broad and even as long-term an approach as possible. Because this may be our only shot at providing some solid recommendations to the Government of Canada,” Patterson said.

“We may not be there after the [election] to hold them accountable.”

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