YELLOWKNIFE - Finding skilled labour will be a challenge as major resource projects move ahead in the Northwest Territories, said the territorial minister in charge of energy and mining.
The territory will need around 3,000 new workers, with several new mines set to open over the next eight to 10 years, David Ramsay said Monday.
"With our remote location (and) the cold weather, it may be difficult for us to attract people to live in the Northwest Territories, but we are going to put our best effort into that," he said in Yellowknife.
Some smaller aboriginal communities in the Northwest Territories have a 30 to 40 per cent unemployment rate, so there's a big need for training programs geared toward the jobs that will be coming, Ramsay said.
"We, today, don't have all those skills. We don't have all those workers. We will need to do everything we can to help prepare ourselves for the time those mines open and the jobs become available."
Ramsay said he's hopeful recently announced job-training initiatives at the federal level will be helpful on that front.
Ross Gallinger, with the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada, said his industry is seeing a "critical" skills shortage, which is even more pronounced in the North.
"We've got a couple of dynamics happening, which is an industry that's reaching retirement age and where we see post-secondary programs falling short of needs. Combine with that, the jobs are located in the North and that's not appealing to everyone in terms of moving from the South to the North," he said.
Natural resources ministers from across Canada are holding their annual meeting in Yellowknife this week.
Ramsay said he'll talk to his counterparts about the idea of a "made in the North" pipeline, which could enable crude to be exported on tankers from the Beaufort Sea or from the Alaskan port of Valdez.
With pipeline proposals to connect Alberta crude to coastal waters — Enbridge Inc.'s (TSX:ENB) Northern Gateway pipeline through B.C. and TransCanada Corp.'s (TSX:TRP) Keystone XL pipeline through the United States, for example — facing significant environmental opposition, Ramsay has been promoting a northern route as an alternative to get the oil to international markets.
The Northwest Territories has vast oil potential of its own in the emerging Canol shale in the Central Mackenzie Valley.
"We believe that the Northwest Territories is in a perfect location and a perfect time in its history to be right there, front and centre," said Ramsay.
"A made-in-the-North solution is not out of the realm of possibilities and I think you have to start somewhere and that discussion has started."
Federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver declined to say whether a northern pipeline would have Ottawa's backing, saying that in principle, his government supports all pipelines that can get resources to export markets, provided they're economically viable and meet regulatory requirements.
"We do not have a preference for one commercial project over another," he said.
In prepared remarks, Oliver warned the window of opportunity is in danger of closing if Canada doesn't act fast on developing its natural resources. A big part of that, he said, is building new pipelines that enable Canadian oil and gas to be sold overseas.
"Preparing for success means ensuring that our resources don't become landlocked," he said, likening those projects to "nation building" undertakings like the Canadian Pacific Railway and the St. Lawrence Seaway.
"Canada was not built by naysayers. It was built by women and men who dared greatly, took on big challenges, applied their ingenuity to overcome them."
Oliver said the long-dormant Mackenzie Gas Project in the Northwest Territories is a classic example of a project that could have been a boon to local aboriginal communities, had it not been dragged down by a years-long regulatory process.
By the time the 1,200-kilometre pipeline was approved, burgeoning shale gas resources further south rendered it virtually obsolete.
"When development is deferred, communities suffer from loss of opportunity," said Oliver.
"The Mackenzie gas project represented a tremendous opportunity for aboriginal partners, but the regulatory review took almost a decade to complete. By the time it was done, the opportunity had passed — an irretrievable loss for an entire generation."
— By Lauren Krugel in Calgary