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Ottawa publishes long-awaited vision for Canada's North


The Liberal government released its "long-term, strategic vision for Canada's Arctic and the North."

The publication of an Arctic and Northern Policy Framework, several years in the making, was initially expected earlier in the summer.

Federal ministers have long heralded the framework as one of the most important northern documents in a decade or more.

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NWT leaders hope it will mean years of consistent, reliable investment that lifts Canada's Arctic aspirations toward those exhibited by the likes of Russia and China.

In full: What's actually in the document? A guide for NWT readers

Beyond that, the NWT hopes the framework will steer renewed funding for education and social services.

Ottawa says the document "will guide the Government of Canada’s activities and investments in the Arctic to 2030 and beyond," lining up federal plans with the needs of northerners and Indigenous peoples.

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"This is a real collaboration in which there is a vision for Canada's North. No longer are these policies written in Ottawa and visited upon the North," Carolyn Bennett, the federal minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, told Cabin Radio.

"Northerners have said to us, 'This is what we need you to be investing in. This is why we need you to listen to us.'

"It's around the 'no surprises' approach. This means relationships will be developed on implementing this and making sure that the federal government is listening to its partners."

The framework, "co-developed" with Inuit, Dene, and Métis partners according to the federal government, was released on Tuesday morning.

The NWT government, alongside its territorial counterparts, has contributed a chapter of the framework focusing on its priorities for sectors like economic development, infrastructure, and education.

However, with the NWT now in the grip of an election, no formal comment on the framework's release is expected from the territory or its ministers (who technically remain in post until the new government takes over). The federal government's news release on Tuesday contained comment from the Yukon and Nunavut premiers, but not Premier Bob McLeod.

First promised by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in December 2016, the framework arrives later than billed. One critic called the document's complicated birth "a joke" earlier this month.

Yet both federal and northern leaders have been hanging on the framework's arrival for years, promising it will provide a much-needed, overarching vision for the North and Arctic.

Calling it a "real collaboration," Bennett said the document contained an "international dimension" in that it also asserts Canadian sovereignty over the Northwest Passage

End of 'good words, little action'?

The framework is expected to set the tone for Canada's involvement in, and prioritization of, major northern infrastructure projects, alongside areas like the environment and Indigenous partnerships.

For the past two years, Premier McLeod and federal northern affairs minister Dominic LeBlanc made great play of the impact they expect the framework to have on the North. The NWT is presently seeking a federal investment of $2 billion or more to complete projects like the Taltson hydro expansion and Slave Geological Province access corridor, both of which the outgoing NWT government has billed as "transformative" for the territory.

Meanwhile, NWT MLAs expressed hope the framework would touch on many other areas as they awaited its publication.

Herb Nakimayak, representing Nunakput, said in August he hoped the framework addressed "some of the many social issues that northerners regularly experience, such as food insecurity, housing inadequacy and homelessness, high rates of suicide, and large gaps in education and general health outcomes."

A draft version of the framework circulated among political leaders in February met with some criticism in the NWT legislature.

Kevin O'Reilly, representing Frame Lake, said at the time the NWT's chapter of the draft was unduly "economically pessimistic" and focused too heavily on big-ticket infrastructure projects, at the expense of prioritizing "resilient and healthy people."

Speaking at a Carleton University event in April, industry minister Wally Schumann said the NWT hopes the framework will ensure the end of "long periods [in Ottawa] where there are a lot of good words but little action."

Schumann said: "We need to stop thinking that a northern policy will do something 'for' the North and northerners. Instead, we need to look at it like this: the future of our northern regions is Canada’s future.

"So yes, it is a policy that will impact the North, but it’s 'for' all of Canada."

Federal investment

In May of this year, Premier McLeod blasted the federal government, even as the framework was being finalized, for failing to provide leadership in the face of aggressive Arctic expansion by Russia and China.

"Where is Canada?" McLeod demanded at the time. "We must lead the conversation to determine what Canada wants for the Arctic.

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

Earlier this year, the federal budget had provided some insight into the likely content of the framework.

Bill Morneau's last budget before the fall federal election included $700 million over the coming decade for Canada’s North, earmarking funds for post-secondary education, infrastructure, and scientific research.

However, the test of the framework – which a Liberal government may not remain in power to enforce, with an election imminent – will be whether it makes any genuine difference to the North's ability to get things done.

Asked if the framework's existence meant more certainty for the NWT that major projects like the Taltson hydro expansion will be funded, Bennett, the minister, told Cabin Radio: "Yes."

She added: "The people of the North know what they need. Particularly the Taltson hydro.

"We are trying to make sure that this is no longer Ottawa-down. It is about investing in the priorities that our partners have identified."

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