January 26, 2010

My Northern Strategy for Canada

The federal government is very keenly rolling out Canada's Northern Strategy. It starts like this:
"The Government has a vision for a new North and is taking action to ensure that vision comes to life – for the benefit of all Canadians."
As someone who lives, works, and plays in Northern Canada, my first reaction is to go, "Uh, oh.  Here we go again."

You see, there is a loooooong history of Southern Canada doing what it thinks is best for Northern Canada.  Sometimes, things work out.  Other times, we end up with disasters like residential schools, forced migration, economically destructive and starvation-inducing policies (i.e. beaver hunting restrictions that were based on over-harvesting problems in southern Canada), slaughtered sled dogs, under-resourced and dependency-based programming, ineffective drug and alcohol treatment services, struggling school systems, and so on and so on.

It happens because of ignorance:  decisions that are made based on incorrect assumptions about the North, no matter how well-intentioned those decisions may be.

You may be wondering, "How ignorant can people possibly be about the North"?  Check this out.  The comments in the original CBC articles are downright frightening.

If Canada really wants to roll out a strategy that's going to strengthen Canada's North, it needs to deal with that ignorance first.

In response, I have developed my own Northern Strategy.  I call it "Meandering Michael's Northern Pilgrimage Program".  Here is what I propose:
  • Educate Canadians about Canada's North.  Forget the idea of having each province incorporate northern studies into their curriculums; Give every Canadian a free flight from their closest major city to one community of their choice (excluding the capitals) in each of Canada's three territories.  Of course, not everyone will take the Northern Pilgrimage, but those who do will return home better informed and can share their experience with their friends.  Would the Northern Pilgrimage Program be expensive?  Heck yeah, but the government plans to spend $3.1 BILLION on a measly eight Arctic patrol vessels, so why not spend that on a million flights instead?
  • Promoting Social and Economic Development.  This priority is already part of the federal Northern Strategy, but the federal approach is based almost entirely on natural resource development.   The amount of tourism traffic (and tourism spending) flowing through the North as a result of the Northern Pilgrimage Program would be substantial, especially by northern standards.  Air transportation links to northern communities would be greatly improved, which would have the following benefits:
    • Increased flight frequency and reduced fares, thanks to improved economies of scale;
    • Lower cost of living for northern residents (i.e. fresher food at lower cost) because of lower air transportation costs;
    • Increased economies of scale and subsequent growth for northern-based tourism ventures (accommodations, restaurants, outfitting, cultural experiences, air transportation services, etc.);
    • A higher profile in lucrative overseas markets;
    • A greater national understanding of northern issues, which would - hopefully - result in support for northern-led solutions to those problems;
    • Attraction of potential new employees to address chronic human resource capacity challenges;
    • Attraction of potential new partners for lonely northern singles.  Hey, it's a serious problem in some of the smaller, more remote communities.
    • Development of economy-driven (as opposed to government-driven) housing to respond to the economic growth within the communities.
  • Protecting Northern Sovereignty.  The Prime Minister has said "use it or lose it".  What better way to use it than to give Canadians an easy and inexpensive way to travel to and visit the North?
I'm not all wet behind the ears.  I know the Meandering Michael's Northern Pilgrimage Program isn't perfect and can bring about a whole new set of problems (i.e. the plan has the potential to strengthen northern cultures, it also has the potential to dilute them), but the benefits are immediate and huge - for everyone in Northern and Southern Canada.  Talk about a major stimulus to the entire nation's economy!

If you think that Meandering Michael's Northern Pilgrimage Program should become a reality:

  1. Comment here and show your support;
  2. Pass the link to this entry on to your friends; and
  3. Share it with your MP.  Most of them are taking a break to "re-calibrate and focus on the economy" anyway.


Carolyn said...

Michael, I couldn't agree with you more. One of my dreams as a younger person was to have travelling classrooms across this country where every kid travelled by rail cars set up as living quarters and classrooms across this country to learn and appreciate where they lived. I do recognize the north would have to be travelled differently but it is a great idea! Most politicians just don't get it.

Clare said...

While I like the concept, I don't think, one it would work, and two be workable. And I think there is a simpler, cheaper way of accomplishing much the same way.

The problem with it working is two fold. People with already entrenched misanthropic ideas that travel north for a day or a few days will just find things to entrench their ideas. "Look, there is polar bear skin - how barbaric!" or "The heathens don't even bother planting lawns - lazy buggers". The second, most of the truly ignorant wouldn't bother getting off their couches, or looking up from their laptop because they're busy leaving inane comments on CBC's stories.

We already get visitors, who have an incredible interest in the north, who come up with entrenched ideas and leave with them just as entrenched. The "they don't have to hunt, there's grocery stores" crowd and worse. In my lecture onboard an Arctic Cruise on life in the Arctic one passenger, who spent thousands of his dollars to be there, not the government's, asked (in essence) "I've heard Inuit have no sexual morals, is that true?".

Another aspect is that, although the north would benefit by increased tourism, the real benefit on moneys "spent on the north" would once again go primarily to southerners. Much like the money for the Patrol vessels.

A simpler method would be to lower transportation costs. Northerners benefit in a multitude of ways, and southerners would also benefit. Affordable travel means the curious would be able to travel, not just to one community in one of the territories but a multitude of them if they so desired. The additional benefit in terms of education is more northerners would be able to travel south, and meet people there and both would be able to demystify preconceptions of the other.

Meandering Michael said...

Excellent points, Clare. I have seen that, where you get the odd (and I do mean odd) person with views so entrenched that no amount of explanation is going to change them. One of the advantages to this approach is that it heads people who are tending towards the ignorance side of things off at the pass, when they're "young and impressionable" enough to have an open mind. Maybe a "cultural awareness camp" would be part of the Pilgrimage.

There will never be a 100% ignorance elimination success rate, but I can also cite many, many specific examples where significant progress was made because of a northern visit.

Reducing travel costs would be lovely, but other than subsidization (which seldom works out well) how would you do it?

Clare said...

Travel costs could be easily reduced, if there was the political will to do it. Sadly there is not. Fare regulation would be the simplest way, alternatively a federally run northern airline could also serve the same purpose.

Governments are loath to do either because 1) regulation is a dirty word in government - but we've seen how well deregulation worked in the financial sector. 2) Governments do not want to be seen as interfering with business, especially businesses that are at least partially owned by Inuit or native groups, 3) Government doesn't believe it should compete with business.

Normally these reservations have some validity however (at least as far as Nunavut and many communities in the NWT and some in the Yukon) this represents a special case. Essentially air travel here is an essential service and there is no alternative. Governments have long been involved in essential services that could be done by the private sector but would result in higher costs because of the need for profit. In this area there is no other means of competing with the airlines (the only competition could be at best termed collusion or an oligarchy as opposed to a monopoly. Profit taking is rampant amongst the airlines here, despite their protestations otherwise. High fares here impact every aspect of our lives here, but especially the delivery of government services. I'm not sure what the federal and territorial yearly airfare and air freight budgets are but they are staggaring. Even if governments operated their own services at a loss they would still come out ahead, and be able to deliver more of their programs for the same amount of money. This isn't even factoring in the cost of attracting people to the north, subsidies for high food costs and travel south. A federal employee in say, Arctic Bay, is entitled to two paid trips out a year for them and their family. The amount is based on full fare tickets to the gateway city in the south, in this case Ottawa. I could be wrong but I believe full fare here to Ottawa is currently around $6000, but lets say its even lower at $5000. There are two RCMP members in Arctic Bay, if each had a spouse and two children (which isn't the actual case but could easily be) that would be $20,000 each, twice a year, just for Isolated Post travel. $80,000.

Subsidies do not work, and shouldn't be considered. They do nothing to promote good behaviour on the part of the airlines (if fact I'd argue that fares would increase in order to get more subsidies - but I have a rather low opinion on our airlines' abilities to do the right thing). And they just add to the cost of government services and ultimately decrease our standard of living further.

shelly said...

Hey Mike, Yes I like this idea. Its a creative idea to a hard situation. Although I think it would be awesome to go to the North. I am not sure that all the parents would be for it. Because it's not in our everyday lives it's easy to lose the connection with taking care of these people. They might as well be in China. Not to day I don't care about people far away...I do. But the trouble is maybe just having a few of these people come down here and do talks or show about their life. That might be easier.