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‘Where is Canada?’ NWT Premier blasts lack of Arctic interest

Premier Bob McLeod
Premier Bob McLeod stands inside the NWT legislature. Pat Kane/Pat Kane Photo

The Premier of the Northwest Territories hit out in stark terms at what he claims is Canada’s lack of vision, leadership, or apparent interest in the Arctic.

“Where is Canada?” demanded Premier Bob McLeod, accusing the federal government of demonstrating “interest in and attention to the Arctic [that] 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,” said McLeod.

“This, however, is not a view of the Arctic shared by other nations,” he continued, raising the spectres of old foes Russia and China – who, he said, are “moving fast to ramp up their presence and level of activity” in the Arctic.



“Does Canada want to remain a leader in the Arctic? What is Canada’s vision for the Arctic?” McLeod asked, while suggesting the NWT should possess a starring role in defining that vision.

“Canada needs to know the Arctic, not just know about it, if it wants to have a meaningful say in decisions about the Arctic in coming decades.”

The 15-minute statement marked McLeod’s most pointed broadside against Ottawa since he declared a “red alert” over perceived obstacles to northern development two years ago.

At the time, that speech appeared to genuinely resonate in Parliament. It was still being referenced by federal ministers a year later.



McLeod had seemed to soften his relationship with the federal government in recent months – “circumstances have improved significantly,” he said in August 2018.

However, with elections at both federal and territorial level hoving into view, the latest statement appeared to challenge federal parties to produce platforms addressing McLeod’s concerns – while attempting to portray Ottawa as the problem to a local audience.

“The upcoming federal and territorial elections provide us with an opportunity to continue a broad conversation about the long-term future of the North,” McLeod said.

It’s not yet clear if the 67-year-old intends to stand for re-election in October, nor whether he would seek an unprecedented third term as premier.

Trade hub ambition

No other ministers made statements as the legislature reconvened on Thursday, suggesting the government hoped to maximize airtime for McLeod’s views.

Nunakput MLA Herb Nakimayak – a regular MLA seen as a close ally of cabinet – immediately followed McLeod’s speech with a broadly similar statement of his own.

“Our infrastructure is eroding almost as fast as we build it,” said Nakimayak. “Our sovereignty is being ignored, which will have profound implications for Inuit and all Canadians in years to come.”

McLeod had earlier gone into some detail on what he sees as Russian and Chinese attempts to leave Canada trailing in Arctic affairs.



“Russia sees the northern sea route as an essential maritime opening for its country. Russia has a fleet of 20 icebreakers capable of traversing the northern sea route, more than a dozen ports – including two deepwater ports in their Arctic – and has committed to increasing investments to attract more shipping traffic through the northern sea route,” said McLeod.

The federal government announced earlier this week it will build two new Arctic patrol ships and up to 16 additional coast guard vessels with “light icebreaking” capabilities.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged that, in his words, “Canadians deserve better than to have this fleet rust out.”

McLeod continued: “China released a whitepaper on its Arctic strategy last year, is investing heavily in infrastructure around the world, and certainly has its eye on Arctic shipping and research.”

We need to know that Canada has a plan.PREMIER BOB MCLEOD

The premier also aired concerns that the United States may try “to set the terms” on Arctic waterways in future.

“As international interest and activity in the Arctic accelerates,” he said, “it is important that Canada is not left behind.”

McLeod called on the federal government – and, by extension, federal political parties – to help turn the northern territories into “a hub for trade and transportation” to address these concerns.



“The circumpolar route can cut as much as 20 days off the time it takes to reach Asia from Europe via ship,” said McLeod. “Other countries know this and they have already been making moves to secure control over these routes

“Canada’s North is closer to key markets in all the major global trading blocs, including Europe, Asia, and Russia than most other regions of North America.

“Canada should be leveraging this comparative proximity to these international markets and investing significantly in transportation infrastructure in all three northern territories.”

Cabin Radio has approached the federal Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, and Minister Carolyn Bennett, for comment. Bennett is deputizing for Dominic LeBlanc, the northern affairs minister, who has stepped away from his portfolio for health reasons.

‘Ships are the new pipelines’

Wally Schumann, the territory’s industry minister, pushed a narrative similar in tone at a major liquefied natural gas (LNG) conference in Vancouver earlier this week.

Schumann’s department, claiming “ships are the new pipelines,” is trying to drum up industry interest in using Tuktoyaktuk as a port for LNG shipments to Asia and beyond.

The department says shipping the gas to Asia using icebreaking tankers could attract prices “up to six or seven times” those achieved in North America.

Referring to disputes between southern provinces like Alberta and British Columbia, Schumann told his audience the NWT provides no such political uncertainty.



“With the warming climate, ice conditions have changed – which really changes the prospect of this project,” Schumann later told Cabin Radio by phone.

“This is very early days. We’re here to raise awareness of the potential in the Mackenzie Delta and the amount of resource that’s there.

“With one jurisdiction, you don’t have these cross-border issues like we see with some of these other projects.”

Asked about the potential environmental impacts of increasing Arctic Ocean shipping, Schumann said residents would need to be consulted before any significant development.

McLeod also urged focus on Arctic deepwater trade in Thursday’s speech.

“Investments in deepwater ports and marine facilities along Canada’s Arctic coast can help to capture trade already travelling the polar route and which is sure to increase in coming years,” said McLeod, “as well as tourist and scientific traffic that is also sure to grow.

“We must lead the conversation to determine what Canada wants for the Arctic,” he concluded.

“With the Arctic figuring ever-more prominently in the plans of other global powers, we need to know that Canada has a plan.”