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Arctic Canada: True North Strong and Free -- and Just

Stephen Harper talks of Northern sovereignty but demonstrates a purely militaristic approach, with the recent addition of a little nod to resource extraction. At no time has the prime minister acknowledged that an essential ingredient to our sovereignty is sustainable and liveable communities in the North.

I once heard Maurice Strong explain that you just need to look to the top of the globe and you'll find the countries with the most developed social programmes. He explained that in the cold countries in the north, communities figured out that they truly needed to help one other. Coconuts falling out of the trees, seas teaming with fish made it much easier for individuals and families to look after themselves; tough winters required a collective approach.

It may be true that Canada and the Scandinavian countries are proud of their health care systems and pensions and housing compared to countries in the South. It is time that we tackled the reality in Canada that we are letting down those very people who live closest to the top of the world.

Vast, rugged land, sparsely inhabited and dangerous weather present significant challenges. I once asked an elder at the Elder's Centre in Iqaluit why she thought she was respected as an 'Elder,' while in the South she would have been called 'elderly.' Without missing a beat she said, "Because life in the North is tough, we are respected because we are the survivors."

Last week when I first heard the news of the terrible tragedy in Resolute Bay, memories of our first Parliamentary visit to the North in the summer of 1998 tumbled back. The late Shaughnessy Cohen had organized the trip as chair of the Justice Committee with the amazing MP for Nunavut, Nancy Karetak-Lindell. We were there during an exciting year as Nunavut was preparing to become its own territory. I remember being in Resolute Bay meeting the scientists at the Polar Shelf Project and in Grise Fiord, our most Northern community, meeting with the relocatees who had been sent from Northern Quebec 50 years before because Canada was worried about Northern Sovereignty. Canada wanted people to be living there on Ellesmere Island. Some had never recovered, still suffering from depression and the post-traumatic stress of being relocated to a totally different environment.

There were no caribou in their 'new' community. We were in Pangnirtung for the Bow Head Whale hunt feast and in Cape Dorset and Pond Inlet meeting with artists. In Iqaluit, we met with the leaders building the new bureaucracy for the new government of Nunavut. I remember coming home with two overwhelming impressions: the majesty of the land, and the dignity of the people. The privilege of visiting our huge Arctic land mass North of 60 and getting to know the people that lived there was an epiphany -- I knew I understood Canada much better. I felt even more proud to be a Canadian. I wanted every Canadian to be able to experience what we had. It put our struggles for equity and fairness in the South in perspective. I have been back to the North almost every year since.

The prime minister has stated that he has a passion for the North. Yet year after year he shows up in the North to observe a military exercise. He talks of northern sovereignty but, time and time again, demonstrates a narrow Pirates of Penzance, purely militaristic approach, with the recent addition of a little nod to resource extraction. At no time has the prime minister acknowledged that an essential ingredient to our sovereignty is sustainable and liveable communities whose very presence reaffirms Canadian land inhabited by Canadians. Northerners should not have to move South for education, health care, jobs and economic security.

The prime minister's recent visit to Baker Lake drew attention to the new gold mine there. But there is also an important iron mine on Baffin Island. These discoveries are exciting new sources of jobs and investments. Yet the government is dragging its feet on the devolution agreements that would give the territory control and revenue from the resources developed there and the ability to enforce meaningful community consultation and approval.

In 1975, in Speaking Together, Nellie Cournoyea, former Premier of the Northwest Territories, said, "Paternalism has been a total failure." Unfortunately the paternalism persists. This 'father knows best' prime minister continues his prescriptions for the North without any comprehension of the real challenges of the people living there.

Seventeen people living in one small home -- yet, as far as I know, not one unit of social housing arrived on the Sealift this summer. Food and household essentials are totally unaffordable -- yet his government revamped the Food Mail Program without listening to the communities, removing diapers from the 'list' when they are $75 per box. T.B. rates at 150 times the national rate, suicide rate for young Inuit men is 40 times the Canadian average and the government refuses to provide an adequate response. The North requires stable predictable funding, not dribs and drabs at the whim of government in one or two year pledges. It needs real strategies -- what, by when and how? Climate change dramatically altered the lives of our Northern people; even the community food lockers dug into the permafrost are thawing. Yet the Conservative government has its head in the slush.

This time last year, we recalled Parliament to hold hearings on the cancellation of the Mandatory Long Form Census. One of the most poignant witnesses was Elisapee Sheutiapik:

"Firstly, I just want to state that to keep Canada strong, we need to know how the country is changing, where people live, work, and raise their families. This census helps us do that. As Inuit, because of our small numbers within our great nation, sometimes we fall through the cracks, but this data brings real information that's needed in all levels of government and non-government organizations."

This prime minister has cancelled the most important tool we had to document the progress or lack of progress on the quality of life in the North. It appears that this government believes that if you don't measure it, you don't have to deal with it -- whatever 'that' is. We have lost the 'count' in accountability. Military exercises and F35s will not make up for the lack of affordable housing and affordable food and quality and accessible health and education. Climate change needs a serious response.

The tragic air crash also reminds us of the reliance that the North has on air transportation -- from opening the North with bush planes, to modern reality of the fundraising efforts it takes to move a hockey or soccer team to play the 'next community,' or the shocking statistic that in some communities up to 70 per cent of health budgets can be used for medical transport. We need the government of Canada to help.

Ten years ago, our Arctic Caucus visited western Nunavut. It was one of the first summers that the Northwest Passage opened. We arrived in Cambridge Bay to see an Irish sailing boat tied up at the dock. The Land's End yacht had been there the week before. There was no port, no customs, no 'pump out,' no electricity plug in. Worse yet, we were told that in some communities there weren't even RCMP detachments. If we want Canadians to come and see the North, we need to invest in the infrastructure necessary to allow these communities to be successful and secure.

We're proud of the role that the Canadian Rangers and our military have played in the North. But a pure military fix will not be enough as the Globe and Mail and John Ibbitson rightly commented on the prime minister's annual Arctic photo-op last week.

My brother-in-law, art historian John O'Brian once told me that Canada used to put artists aboard ships heading to the North. A.Y. Jackson and Frederick Banting were the first to go to the Arctic. In 1927, they joined a government expedition that left Baffin Island in July, and made sketches as far north as Ellesmere Island. Jackson went back again at the invitation of the government in 1930, this time accompanied by Lawren Harris. Their images reaffirmed that those landscapes were ours -- our North was indeed unquestionably ours -- sovereign.

There are many terrific documents that can serve as the 'Coles Notes' to the North, such as the Library of Parliament's publications on Canada's Legal Claims Over Arctic Territories and Water and Canada's Arctic Sovereignty. I encourage all Canadians to go and visit Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. It is time to listen to leaders like Mary Simon and Sheila Watt-Cloutier and support them in their passion for the North and the planet. Canadians who live in the North deserve to have the same access to health care and education and economic opportunities. They deserve Canadian leadership on climate change. Only when these urgent issues are addressed will we truly have a 'True North Strong and Free' -- and just.

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