The North is, in political and administrative terms, a young land, with many innovative leaders and public services, and with a North-centred view of how the future might unfold.
Government officials engaged in the administration of the Canadian North live in fascinating times. Charged with managing in fiscally challenging circumstances, public servants are nonetheless called on to be innovative in approach. They are supposed to find new ways of engaging with the Canadian public and must work to address old problems while new issues arise with regularity. The juxtaposition of resource wealth and rural and Aboriginal poverty across Northern Canada is but one of the complex challenges being confronted daily by Northern public servants.
Challenge of change
Public servants in the North, of course, face unique challenges. These are boom times in the Canadian resource sector. Mineral deposits are under development across the vast sub-Arctic and Arctic regions of the country, generating jobs, government revenues and opportunities for collaboration between government, business and Aboriginal communities. The rapid development carries significant challenges, particularly in terms of environmental stewardship, social change, and the ongoing effort by Aboriginal people to shape their engagement with the market economy.
In many parts of the North, wealth creation based on resource development is happening rapidly. Ensuring that the wealth that is being created has positive benefits for the region and its residents remains a very different matter.
On the governance and administration side, an innovative framework has been put in place in the territorial North. Consider the major changes that have occurred in the past 40 years: the establishment of elected government (though in Yukon it had existed for some time already), the creation of Nunavut, devolution of federal authority, major changes in federal-territorial financial arrangements, the resolution of most Aboriginal land claims, and the emergence of Aboriginal self-government. Add to this constitutional protection of Aboriginal and treaty rights and the “duty to consult” provisions established by the courts and the scale of the Northern political and administrative change becomes clearer.
Few jurisdictions in the world – and none with such small and widely distributed populations – have experienced such profound and rapid transformation. The territorial governments are both large, as a percentage of the total population, and very small in terms of the number of public servants relative to the duties at hand. Yet the processes of governmental transformation in the territorial North have been relatively free from scandal, abuse, administrative chaos or even national notice. There have been areas of challenge, such as preparing a cohort of Northern public servants to tackle the new work, and some fine achievements, particularly around collaborative resource management. Critical attention has been paid to Nunavut’s early challenges, themselves a function of the vast scale of the regional challenges, the small size of the emergent government, and the urgent need for action on many fronts.
When Canadians talk about the North, they typically mean the territories. In reality, the major public sector challenges in the country are actually focused on the provincial North. It is vital to recognize that the provincial North has experienced few of the above noted political changes and now lags well behind the territorial North in terms of opportunities for local and regional control over government.
Many parts of the provincial North have no modern land claims settlements, or even negotiations underway. Regional administration is subordinate to provincial departments, with vague and often changing lines of authority and limited resources. Aboriginal rights and political engagement in the territorial are much more entrenched than in the provincial North (except Quebec). In contrast, resource development is proceeding apace, placing unprecedented pressure on regional infrastructure and Northern communities.
Much work lies ahead, in both the territorial and provincial Norths. In the latter case, the ongoing difficulty of political recognition and administrative autonomy remains to be addressed. There are few obvious opportunities, save for those groups in Labrador, Northern Quebec and Northern British Columbia operating under or negotiating land claims settlements.
Across the North, however, the administrative challenges are well-known and widely discussed: building Northern governance capacity, both in terms of Aboriginal and public governance; converting resource development into financial stability and long-term jobs for local residents; building bridges with indigenous governments; slowing the transiency of non-Aboriginal people (particularly in the professions, where mobility remains a crucial issue); and addressing the socio-economic and cultural priorities of indigenous peoples and communities.
Need for innovation
To this point, innovation (as understood in southern Canada) has rarely been seen a key Northern priority. The intensity of political, legal and administrative change has been a formidable challenge for Northern public servants, one that they have handled very well. The North has countless innovations underway – the work being down to engage indigenous peoples and newcomers is among the best in the world – and a large number of detailed tasks are still to be done. There is openness to doing more, particularly if some of the challenges around the cost and reliability of Internet service and other infrastructure can be addressed, and a desire to experiment with new administrative arrangements.
Wealth creation or, more properly, more widely spread wealth creation remains a crucial objective. All three territorial governments assign a high priority to natural resource development, involving indigenous governments, businesses and communities in both the evaluative processes and the implementation activities.
People and communities in the Northern provinces often have fewer political levers – Northern Quebec and Labrador being exceptions – and have much less influence over resource and economic development. Even here, however, “duty to consult” provisions have alerted governments and businesses (though business has often been ahead in this regard) to the need for new approaches, empowering indigenous communities and firms in ways that seemed unlikely 30 years ago.
A series of impressive developments, some still at the early stages, auger well for the systematic and sustainable improvement of the innovation and wealth creating capabilities of the region. The James Bay Cree, for example, capitalized on their land claim deal to create a series of businesses that operate effectively in the region. The Inuvialuit Regional Corporation converted the funds from the Inuvialuit settlement into one of the most successful indigenous corporations in the country. Collaboration between First Nations and the Athabasca Basin Development Limited Partnership shows the potential benefits of indigenous-municipal cooperation in seizing regional economic opportunities.
British Columbia has taken important steps toward building revenue-sharing into its relationships with First Nations. Major corporations, including Cameco, Suncor and Syncrude, have worked creatively on both employment and joint venture initiatives that ensure Aboriginal people a significant return on local resource activities. In Northern communities like Fond du Lac, Buffalo Narrows and Fort Chipewyan, Aboriginal people fly in to work sites while maintaining connections to their communities.
The government of Saskatchewan has take