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North America's Forgotten Frontier: Canadian Arctic

09/18/2013 12:04 EDT | Updated 11/18/2013 05:12 EST

YELLOWKNIFE, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES -- This charming lakeside town bustles as thousands of Japanese tourists come annually to view the spectacular Aurora Borealis lights and as workers in mining, construction and energy arrive to cash in on its boom.

I was invited to speak at the Prospects North 2013 conference sponsored by the NWT Chamber of Commerce and I also visited the Diavik Diamond mine, the biggest of three gigantic mines nearly 400 miles north of Yellowknife. These mines, and another to open soon, are why the Northwest Territories has become the third biggest diamond producer in the world.

The conference was organized by executive director Mike Bradshaw and well-attended by policy, political and business leaders. My message was simply that the territories needed a new metaphor. They are not isolated and helpless political jurisdictions. They must think of themselves as the world's biggest mining and resource play.

The three -- NWT, Yukon and Nunavut -- are bigger than Australia and have only seven operating mines now. Another 20 mines are in advanced stages of pre-development approvals and hundreds more undiscovered ore bodies exist in the frozen north. Such mature projects and exploration must be their top priority -- as the world's biggest mining play -- and will usher in an unprecedented amount of prosperity and the building of essential infrastructure.

"BY 2020, our GDP will double and we will have several new mines, one diamond, two gold mines, one zinc mine and two lead-zinc mines," said NWT Premier Robert McLeod in his office in Yellowknife. Imagine what twice that many mines would mean to the Territory and the North.

His prediction doesn't include the economic development that will result from a discovery of oil from shale and the huge hydro-electric potential in the Northwest Territories, bigger than Quebec's James Bay or B.C. Hydro's. The oil, light and valuable, can be developed within a few years -- like the Bakken in North Dakota and Saskatchewan -- but the development of dams may take a decade or more.

"We are told that the shale oil in our territories (near Norman Wells) is gigantic, 627 million barrels or even more," said Peter Vician, Deputy Minister of Industry Trade and Investment in an interview.

The world has passed this northern frontier by -- from a failed attempt (for 30 years) to exploit natural gas and oil in and around Inuvik, to the lack of infrastructure or interest by the federal government (which is the landlord).

Canada's North is unexplored, unmapped and undeveloped making Canada itself a laggard in terms of economic development. The territories are cold and remote and unpopulated but so are Alaska and Siberia and yet jurisdictions are massively wealthy and have large populations and infrastructure.

Siberia has 50 seaports, more people than Canada, 36 million and seven cities with half a million or more people. The area was opened up in 1891.

Alaska, one third size of Canada's Arctic, has seven times' more people (710,000), a $50 billion Heritage Fund, seven huge operating mines, Prudhoe Bay oil fields and pipeline and 25 seaports.

Meanwhile in Canada in the 1980s one of the most promising oil wells was discovered -- the Amauligak in the Beaufort Sea -- then capped and abandoned along with trillions of cubic feet of natural gas.

Hopefully, the territories will speak with one voice in Ottawa and the promising shale oil discoveries will make the country and world take notice.

Maybe this generation will belong to the North.

*This article previously appeared in the Financial Post