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Senate committee calls recommendations in Arctic report a ‘wake up call’

A polar bear stands on a ice flow in Baffin Bay above the arctic circle as seen from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent on July 10, 2008.
A polar bear stands on a ice flow in Baffin Bay above the arctic circle as seen from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent on July 10, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

We the North? Canada’s Senate is skeptical.

The marketing slogan for Toronto’s NBA team may be everywhere these days. But for Sen. Dennis Patterson, who helped write a new report on the Arctic, it’s mostly just that.

“The country identifies itself by its North. The True North strong and free, the Raptors. But it’s symbolic. It’s not real.”

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Patterson is a chairman of a special Senate committee on the Arctic, which just tabled a report with 30 recommendations on everything from funding better education for northerners to building housing fit for a changing climate.

Almost all of them have been made before in some form. The paper’s appendix lists 56 reports in the last 12 years written by Senate or House committees on Arctic issues.

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The new report is entitled “A Wake-Up Call” and Patterson says Ottawa’s sleep has been long and deep.

“There’s still a huge infrastructure deficit,” said Patterson, who is from Iqaluit, Nunavut. “We’re feeling neglected and the evidence seems to be that is the case, that the North is not on the radar.”

Sen. Patricia Bovey, a co-chair on the committee, pointed out that when the group was struck in 2017, there was anticipation the Liberal government would soon release its anticipated Arctic policy framework. No such policy has been tabled and Bovey suggests her committee’s work can fill that gap.

“This report, I hope, will become the basis for actions.”

It does make some specific recommendations.

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It calls for a action on high-speed internet connectivity by next March. A dedicated minister for northern affairs is a “must, not a maybe,” said Bovey.

It asks for an Arctic infrastructure bank to help fund housing and public buildings to mitigate the impacts of climate change. New construction codes need to be developed appropriate to the North, the report adds.

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Communities should have energy options other than diesel generators. Basic adult education should be better-funded and an Arctic university should be developed.

Chronic health issues should also be addressed by dealing with the social conditions that cause them. And local scientific capacity should be developed and research programs designed to meet the needs of northerners.

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“What I hope we’ve done is express the urgency, develop some immediate steps that can be taken to address the bigger whole, while providing a pathway to a sustained ongoing engagement and improvement,” Bovey said.

In an email, a spokesperson for Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said a policy framework is still coming.

“We are taking the necessary time and steps to co-develop a framework that reflects and integrates the shared interests, goals and priorities of our partners and is responsive to the needs of Northerners and Arctic residents,” it said. “We will have more say on it in the coming weeks.”

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The email said the framework will focus on communities, economies, infrastructure, environment, research, safety and defence. It noted the 2019 budget sets out $700 million over 10 years for northern projects.

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Patterson said the North is ready for development. Effective ways of reviewing, assessing and permitting projects in the North are already in place.

“We have experience and we have done innovations in the Arctic that the rest of Canada could benefit from if they’d only pay attention to what we’ve managed to accomplish.”

But first, Patterson said, the North has to get somebody’s attention.

“Maybe, after decades of neglect, this comprehensive report will actually materialize in the form of a new comprehensive federal policy on the Arctic.”

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