The federal government has published a key document intended to unify efforts by the three northern territories, Indigenous peoples, and Ottawa to develop infrastructure and quality of life in the North.
While boringly entitled, the Arctic and Northern Policy Framework is intended to provide 10 years of certainty in terms of funding for northern projects and Canada’s vision for the Arctic.
Carolyn Bennett, the federal Crown-Indigenous relations minister, called it a “no surprises” document, saying it would help the NWT get big projects done – like the Taltson hydro expansion, which the territory hopes will transform its economy with cheaper, greener power for the North Slave and its mines.
However, the document is not light bedtime reading.
The framework’s main chapter is 17,000 words long, and it comes with a range of accompanying chapters written by partners like the three territories.
So we read the framework on your behalf. On this page, we outline the promises the main document makes and the NWT’s contribution to the framework in its own chapter.
Importantly, the framework does not contain specific actions.
If you are hoping to read “complete Taltson hydro expansion by 2025” or “invest additional $300 million in NWT early childhood care and education,” you are going to be disappointed.
Instead, the framework makes high-level commitments agreed upon by all partners. Ottawa says the document will be followed by more detailed plans that outline how decisions will be taken, and how they will be funded.
The overall vision
While the main chapter is a mammoth block of writing, much of it is given over to preparatory wordsmithing – statements in which the federal government formally acknowledges the history of the North and its Indigenous peoples, for example.
Other sections set out the background for anyone who doesn’t already know and understand the challenges facing northerners, ranging from the lack of infrastructure to the settling of land claims. There’s also a section about what Ottawa heard during consultations with residents.
Where the document starts to make meaningful forward-looking statements is in a section entitled “Our Future.”
In this section, the framework states plainly: “Canada’s Arctic and North will no longer be pushed to the margins of the national community.
“Its people will be full participants in Canadian society, with access to the same services, opportunities and standards of living as those enjoyed by other Canadians. The resources required for their physical and mental wellness will be accessible.”
Aligning itself with the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, the framework pledges to match the UN’s ambition of ending poverty and hunger, promoting inclusivity, providing affordable energy, ensuring sustainable consumption, and urgently combating climate change.
The document promises the federal government, and its partners, will try to give northern youth “the education they need to thrive” and Indigenous peoples “the support required for their languages and cultures to be not only maintained, but revitalized.”
Effective environmental stewardship employing local people is promised, as is “ongoing reconciliation.”
Canada then goes on to assert its Arctic authority, stating it will “robustly support the rules-based international order in the Arctic.” More icebreaking capacity, an expanded Coast Guard Arctic Auxiliary, and better responses to maritime environmental emergencies are promised.
Having outlined its vision of the northern future, the document begins setting out individual goals and objectives.
Though the goals each have titles littered with buzzwords and policy-speak, there are important commitments in the detail beneath each headline.
Examining the health of northerners, the framework pledges to reduce suicides, eliminate homelessness, create an environment where children thrive, and address the systemic causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls, among other objectives.
Turning to the economy, the framework promises “investment in significant infrastructure projects” alongside fast, reliable broadband for all, connections to the hydro grid, and “multi-purpose corridors for broadband, energy and transportation” – aka big roads.
The document also mandates that Ottawa work to increase Indigenous participation in the economy, grow the mining and resource extraction sector in a “responsible and sustainable” fashion, build supports for Arctic and northern research, and work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions both nationally and internationally.
Backing up its assertion of Arctic rights, the framework says Canada will “define more clearly [its] marine areas and boundaries in the Arctic” and enhance its military presence accordingly.
Lastly, pledging the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to actions alongside the articles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the frameworks says Canada must “continue to redress past wrongs against Indigenous peoples.”
What happens next?
At this point, you could be forgiven for feeling like you have heard most of this before.
Taken individually, each of the commitments in the framework is nothing new. Individual federal departments have made broadly similar noises for years – dating back beyond the Liberal government – and little in the framework represents a dramatic shift in strategy.
However, Ottawa believes the presence of all these goals in one overarching document, compiled with the input and support of the three territories and Indigenous governments, is vital.
Within the document, the federal government says getting everyone to sit down and agree on a framework was a “significant achievement” in its own right.
The next steps, as set out in the framework, focus on figuring out how to turn the document’s grand plans into reality. How do you end homelessness in the North? How does everyone end up with fast broadband? And what does redressing past wrongs actually look like?
The first action is developing “governance mechanisms” to set out how everyone decides what gets done, and how it gets done, to meet the goals of the framework.
Those mechanisms will rely on a recent, separate report which looked into how Canada’s Arctic should jointly be governed.
Once those mechanisms are in place, the federal government, territorial governments, and Indigenous partners will come up with a plan that figures out what new money is required to achieve these goals, and where that cash is coming from. (Investments can carry on before that plan is in place, but the plan is designed to show how all those investments collectively help Canada reach the framework’s goals.)
When will we have that plan? That’s not clear. No timeline was immediately evident amid the documentation released on Tuesday. The federal election is likely to have a significant impact on what happens next, as there’s no guarantee the incoming federal government will want to do exactly what the current one just committed to in this document.
The NWT’s chapter
Meanwhile, the NWT government has a separate chapter of the framework dedicated to its own vision for the territory’s next decade.
Finalized in April, the NWT’s chapter adds a further 5,000 words in which the territory aims to become “proudly self-reliant and a net contributor to Canada” – a big ask, financially, for a territory that, projecting $1.9 billion in revenue this year, currently expects around $1.4 billion of that to come from Ottawa.
The NWT’s chapter declares reaching that point will require “large-scale, transformational investment in infrastructure and in the economy, as well as in residents’ health and education.”
Describing a “stalled economy” in the territory, the NWT government predictably uses its chapter to earmark the Taltson hydro expansion, Mackenzie Valley Highway, and Slave Geological Province road as three big-ticket items that can turn this around. The lifting of the federal moratorium on offshore oil and gas development is also requested.
Many other requests are detailed in a section on infrastructure, from extending the fibre line to Tuktoyaktuk through to “a focus on large-scale housing developments.” The NWT says affordable housing is “a top priority” to help the physical and mental health of its residents, and sets out a future where there is more support for local food production.
The NWT’s chapter says additional investment in early childhood care and education is vital in the next decade, with more access to distance learning in remote communities. In a section about the environment, the territory asks for increased funding for research into and mitigation of climate change impacts.
With little financial ability to make these demands come true, the NWT’s chapter essentially acts as a giant wish-list to Ottawa for the next 10 years. In effect, the NWT is arguing that large-scale investment in the territory now will lessen the need for large-scale investment in the territory later.
The chapter concludes: “The people of the NWT have the raw resources, commitment to sustainability, the ideas, and the vision that can help make this happen. We need farsighted partners and investors.
“The Government of Canada can help by taking a strategic, dedicated, and coordinated approach to northern policy and investment.”