After 4 years, the Liberals haven’t released their plan for the Arctic

Pieces of sea ice melt in Frobisher Bay in Iqaluit, Nunavut on July 31, 2019. Some experts in Arctic policy fear past investments in Canada’s North could be undermined if there’s no overall plan for the country’s polar future.

Liberal government says its Northern Policy Framework is still a work in progress

After four years in power, the Liberal government still hasn’t delivered on a promise of a detailed plan for developing Canada’s North in a time of climate change and economic and military threats from circumpolar powers.

“There is so much work that needs to be done,” Iqaluit Mayor Madeleine Redfern told CBC News. “For decades, we have been falling behind our Arctic neighbours.”

Almost three years ago, the Liberals committed to developing an Arctic Policy Framework. The document, intended to replace past strategies designed by the previous Conservative government, was supposed to be released this summer.

CBC News has learned that a recently scheduled announcement of the policy was cancelled. It’s unclear whether the finished policy will be released before the election.

In spite of the delays, Arctic leaders and polar policy experts have said the Liberals have made significant investments in the region. Redfern said Iqaluit and the region have seen green infrastructure investments and new money to fight tuberculosis and substance abuse.

But some experts in Arctic policy say those past investments (and, lately, pre-election funding announcements) could be undermined if there’s no overall plan for Canada’s polar future.

“We’re not necessarily deploying all these investments as strategically as we could and should,” Redfern said.

Arctic economic and governance expert John Higginbotham is more blunt about the absence of a new framework. He told CBC News a planned unveiling of the policy document in Yellowknife in August was cancelled.

“Once again postponed. I mean, it’s a joke,” said Higginbotham, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

He said he gives the government points for advancing protections for the environment and Indigenous reconciliation. In 2019 alone, the Liberals apologized for the mistreatment of Inuit with tuberculosis and turned vast areas of the High Arctic into marine protected and conservation areas.

The Liberal government under Justin Trudeau, shown here with Iqaluit Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq and Iqaluit Mayor Madeleine Redfern, is facing criticism for not releasing its Arctic Policy Framework document.

But Higginbotham said Canada’s North has been “screaming” for federal leadership in building roads and ports, preparing for commercial traffic through the Northwest Passage, bolstering defence, and creating economic opportunities.

Instead, he said, the government has focused its mandate in the Arctic on eco-social issues.

“The government is interested in the Arctic,” Higginbotham said. “But it’s a progressive agenda which many Canadians will like. I mean, they want as little economic development as possible up in the North.”

Will we see an Arctic strategy before the election?

The promised Arctic policy framework is still a work in progress. It will have chapters authored by territorial, provincial and Indigenous governance organizations, the federal government says.

“We have gone across the North to speak directly with northerners about what they want included in the Arctic and Northern Policy Framework,” said Crown-Indigenous Relations spokesperson Jane Deeks.

Unlike the Conservatives, Deeks said, the government didn’t take an “Ottawa knows best” approach that “ignored the everyday needs of northerners for 10 years.”

She said she couldn’t state whether the framework would be released before or after the election.

Conservatives and NDP weigh in

Conservative MP Erin O’Toole called the Liberals’ track record on the Arctic a “colossal failure.” He said if the document drops during the pre-writ period, it will become a political document instead of a non-partisan vision.

O’Toole, the party’s foreign affairs critic, said Canada is falling behind its circumpolar neighbours — the U.S, Denmark and Russia. China recently released a white paper that laid out the country’s plan to establish a “Polar Silk Road” through the Northwest Passage.

One expert on Arctic governance said Canada’s North has been ‘screaming’ for federal leadership on infrastructure projects, such as building roads and ports. 

Both parties came in for criticism from Manitoba NDP MP Niki Ashton, who said years of Conservative and Liberal governments haven’t delivered for northerners.

“Certainly the challenges we’re facing in the North when it comes to the federal government are ongoing,” Ashton said. “And they are a result of consecutive Conservative and Liberal governments ignoring us.”

Jessica Shadian, president of Arctic360, an organization that works to educate financial institutions about opportunities in the North, said Canada’s polar region needs not partisanship but an in-depth, multi-decade plan — something she doubts the Liberal framework will deliver.

Shadian said the North needs a plan that creates a business case for Bay Street investors who see the North as a foreign land.

“I also work a lot with financial institutions … They don’t have a business case in front of them,” Shadian said. “To see why they should be partners. Because obviously, the federal government cannot fund these projects alone.”

Redfern agrees with Shadian, saying a compelling business case would lure private sector investment and attract buy-in from provincial, territorial, municipal and Indigenous governments.

She also pointed to one key area where Canada’s North needs investment: higher education. Although Canada has committed to opening Canada’s first university in the Yukon, she said that’s not enough for a region that accounts for 40 per cent of Canada’s territory.

“That would be like saying that a university in Vancouver is sufficient and that the rest of Canada, therefore, doesn’t need [another] university,” Redfern said.

Redfern said the creation of a knowledge and research base in the North would supercharge Canada’s quest to be a global leader in the circumpolar region.

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