06/27/2012 12:37 EDT | Updated 08/27/2012 05:12 EDT

High Cost Of Northern Living: Arctic Premiers Urge Feds To Invest In Infrastructure To Bring Down Costs


IQALUIT, Nunavut - The high cost of basics such as food, energy and housing is a major issue across Canada's North and the three Arctic territories can't address it themselves, say the three northern premiers.

"When we looked at ways to reduce the cost of living, it all boiled down to infrastructure," said Northwest Territories Premier Bob McLeod, whose government spends $170 million a year on subsidies to make northern life more affordable.

"We're looking at working with the government of Canada to invest."

Speaking Wednesday after a two-day meeting in Iqaluit, the premiers agreed the North is low on the kind of infrastructure the rest of Canada takes for granted. And what it does have is old and inefficient.

"We have a historic lack of infrastructure," said Eva Aariak of Nunavut, where people have held several demonstrations recently over the high cost of groceries. The Eastern Arctic has no roads for goods to be trucked in and no ports, despite the fact almost all its communities are on the coast.

Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski said his territory's mining-fuelled population growth is driving up the demand for housing. More federal land should be made available for construction, he said.

"We've had tremendous growth in population."

McLeod said his territory, where only 19 per cent of the population has access to all-weather roads, is looking for help with highways and airports. The N.W.T.'s infrastructure shopping list has been put as high as $3 billion and includes items such as a fibre-optic line linking communities along the Mackenzie Valley and an all-weather highway from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, which would be the first road connection between southern Canada and its Arctic coast.

Expensive energy is another major concern across the North.

Pasloski said the Yukon's current hydro generation is almost at capacity. In the N.W.T. and Nunavut, much of the electricity used to warm homes and run businesses comes from expensive — and aging — diesel generators.

"Developing alternative methods of providing more energy-efficient infrastructure is very important," said Aariak.

A recent report from the Conference Board of Canada pointed out that lower energy costs would not only make life easier for northern families, it would create jobs by reducing costs for business.

The premiers are also calling on Ottawa to give them more input into Canada's agenda for its upcoming leadership of the Arctic Council, an increasingly influential group of eight nations that ring the North Pole. Canada takes over from Sweden for a two-year term next spring.

"The three territories want to work with the federal government in ensuring the interests and needs of the people of the North are front and centre," said Aariak. "We'd like to see more territorial participation."

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton

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