05/26/2016 01:02 EDT | Updated 05/27/2017 05:12 EDT

An Alternative To Commodity-Driven Development In Northern Canada

"The world I was born into has changed forever."

- Sheila Watt-Cloutier, The Right to Be Cold

Inuit have entered modernity brutally. Over the past centuries, the Canadian Arctic experienced many intrusions in the name of "progress". Despite the remoteness of their territories, which span over a third of Canada's land, Inuit have seen three major waves of commodity-driven development.

Europeans began hunting whales in the 16th century, mainly on the coasts of Greenland and the Davis Strait. The whaling industry grew rapidly between the 18th and 19th centuries, expanding to the Beaufort Sea. This first wave of development benefited native peoples, who were seasonally employed by the whalers. Natives served as guides or crewmen and were eager to procure European trade goods. In this interdependence, a strained relationship between Inuit and Southerners thus began.

As whale populations declined, attention shifted to trapping and fur trade. Native hunters traded furs, mostly from white fox, in exchange for foreign commodities that quickly became necessities, such as guns, ammunition, tools, and cloth. Fur trading thrived due to the mutual benefits generated, despite the asymmetrical power dynamics between hunter and trader. The market in white fox furs peaked in the first half of the 20th century. This high was short-lived and prices collapsed in the late 1940s.

Combined with the dramatic crash in fox fur prices, significant changes in Canada's welfare system post-WWII left Northern communities in a state of dependence. Family allowances became the major source of income, adding pressure on Inuit communities to conform and "modernize" according to Western standards. By the 1960s, most Inuit abandoned their semi-nomadic lifestyle, some by force, to live in permanent settlements. This new way of life was in complete rupture with their past.

With the global race for the Arctic's riches in progress, Inuit communities face yet another wave of commodity-driven development. Massive investments such as the Plan Nord drafted by the Government of Québec are on-going. Dozens of projects are being prepared and the Conference Board of Canada estimates that the mining GDP in Northern Canada will nearly double by 2020, reaching $8.5 billion.

Recent research has shown that Northern communities have benefited little from mining, despite the land claims ensuring Inuit participation in decision-making. Past projects such as the one in Rankin Inlet (Nunavut), showcase how mining compounds are created and abandoned based on the boom and bust cycles of commodity prices, leaving hundreds of families in precarious positions. In Salluit (Nunavik), the payment of royalties directly to the population is having dubious consequences. Surges in alcoholism and violence contrast starkly with the positive windfalls from the mine.

The cases of whaling, fur trade, and mining clearly demonstrate the dual impacts of commodity-driven initiatives. Although resource development surely has potential, not only will it be short-lived but it will also be driven by external forces. Faced with this situation, Inuit communities are finding their own paths toward a sustainable future.

As a means of gaining autonomy and fostering positive social change, local economic development has become a pillar for municipalities across Northern Canada. In Nunavik, the FCNQ, which manages co-ops across the region, generates close to $250M in revenues while providing a socially equitable alternative. Obviously, there is no silver lining and there is no one type of Northern community. Instead of a homogenizing representation, these avenues could allow for each group to take ownership of its future, breaking the destructive cycle of resource and state dependence.

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