Sunday, April 24, 2011

An Arctic Too Far?

Amid all the controversy about the new Nutrition North food subsidy in relation to the old Food Mail program, it’s interesting to speculate on the continuing rise in the price of all commodities, and the negative impact that those rising prices are having on Canada and, particularly, on the viability of the Canadian Arctic.

In 1970 (I’m showing my age by remembering this) a snowmobile at the Hudson’s Bay Company would set you back about $800. Today, a basic snowmobile (admittedly better than the 70’s version) will cost about $8,000, freight in, landed in Kugluktuk. The same for cars and trucks – you could buy a very nice muscle-car in 1970 for about $4,000, now it will cost you forty. While I don’t recall the prices of other essential goods in 1970, I’m guessing that a gallon of diesel fuel or a pound of margarine would follow the same trend when converted to litres and kilograms today.

I do recall my wages in 1970 though. As a junior radio operator with the Department of Transport I was earning about $23,000 - very good money for the day. A similar starting position with the government in 2011 will pay about three times that amount.

So, as my very non-academic study shows, wages have risen three times in forty years while the cost of living has risen by a factor of ten. Net result – people are far worse off today than they were forty years ago. If the trend continues, as I expect it will, the northern reaches of Canada may, in the next couple of decades, become unsustainable. It will simply cost the government too much money to maintain the services that people have come to expect and the majority of residents will be reduced to a level of poverty, already among the worst in Canada, similar to the poorest nations on earth.

What then? A mass evacuation of Nunavut? Probably not. Economic realities will, and are, driving people from Nunavut already. The adventure-seeking young people who want a challenge and a new perspective on Canada are being discouraged from coming north by the high cost of living, including high rents for government-owned housing units. The educated Inuit, relatively few in number, now have the skills that will allow them to live in southern Canada and escape the sky-high crime rate and poor educational prospects for their children.

The north could become the world’s largest ghetto, populated by un-educated people, with welfare their only option, and getting poorer every year.

Long gone are the days when a single person could come north and either enjoy a life-long standard of living well beyond what could be expected in the south or, in two or three years, leave the north with enough dough in the pocket to pay cash for a suburban home in the Scarborough wilderness. Nowadays, one had better come north with a mate who is also guaranteed of a full-time job, and even then the situation is not as attractive as it was to a 1970’s-vintage single person.

What would be the implications for Canadian sovereignty if there were nothing but a few scientific and military installations in the north? Ironically, Canada may be forced to establish a strong military presence in the arctic if all the people moved out. It seems that governments of all stripes have, historically, been more interested in protecting the land than the people who live on it.

How can this situation be turned around? The federal government will eventually have to increase subsidies to people who live in Nunavut or see the Canadian Arctic become an empty and un-used piece of real-estate that will undoubtedly attract the attention of other nations.
The tax-payer may baulk at the concept of paying people to reside in Nunavut and other remote areas of Canada but we’ve been doing it for decades already. It is, I believe, time that southern Canadians realize the value of having a strong human presence in the arctic and respond by providing the financial support that is essential for the long-term viability of Canada as an arctic nation.

Policies should move in the direction of providing all Canadians with similar prices for essential commodities. A litre of home heating oil or gasoline, a kilowatt-hour of electricity, a loaf of bread or litre of milk should cost all Canadians about the same amount. Even with that subsidy, most northerners will still be at a disadvantage in terms of energy costs, with our severe and lengthy winters resulting in much higher consumption.

The net cost to the millions of southern Canadian tax-payers for the support of a few tens of thousands of arctic residents will hardly be felt, and the subsidies will pay dividends in improved human health and productivity, aid in Canada’s claims to the arctic and improve our image on the international stage.