Listen to the North

Cramming northerners’ needs into a southern model just isn’t working.

Sometimes we understand events in our lives immediately. Sometimes it takes decades. I have gradually realized over the last year that my view of Canada, indeed my view of how my own life could or should be lived, was radically transformed late in the winter of 1976 on my first trip to the Arctic. I was 29, fresh from seven years in France, first writing my PhD, then running a small investment firm in Paris. Those are experiences that produce a southern, urban, European-oriented self-confidence, which could also be described as the attitude of a classic colonial Canadian.

I travelled north with Maurice Strong, the founding chair and CEO of Petro-Canada. It had begun operations on the first of January that year. Maurice was its first employee. As his assistant, I was the second and so doubled the size of the national oil company. It was a Crown corporation and had inherited the shares the government held in some of the private companies exploring for oil and gas in the High Arctic islands. The government had financed some of these risky ventures or rescued them. And so we were going north to look over our property; that is, the people’s property.

On our way to the High Arctic islands, we flew into Inuvik—then an oil and gas boom town—on the delta of the Mackenzie River where it flowed into the Arctic Ocean. The first meeting Maurice had organized was with the local hunters and trappers associations. I believe they represented the Inuit, the Dene and the Gwich’in. I went into the room filled with goodwill, thanks to my urban, southern, western views—in other words, I was out to lunch. An hour and a half later I walked out in a state of deep confusion. It seemed that there was another way of looking at society, another way of looking at the land, at human relationships, at the relationship between society and the land.

This other view was not necessarily to the left or the right, for or against oil exploration or other forms of development. This was a different philosophy, a Canadian philosophy, not derivative of the South or the West. It existed outside of those rational structures of thought that aim to separate humans from everything else in order to raise us to a privileged position in which our interests trump those of the place in which we exist. Whatever the advantages of this approach, we are now faced with unintended outcomes such as climate change. This other philosophy, when I first heard it applied in Inuvik, is just as interested in human well-being, but sees it in a context integrated with the place. And so these hunters were asking tough questions about the broader, longer-term impacts of each narrow southern-style proposal for what we thought of as progress.

In those days, you could get through school and university, get a PhD and live an intellectually active life in Canada without anyone mentioning this more integrated, in many ways more modern, way of thinking. Today this would not be so easily possible. And yet what people in the South do know today will still have been delivered to them in southern, western forms. You could say that northern ideas are still so deformed by southern intellectual and political systems that the situation is almost worse. There is now an assertion of understanding and sympathy so constructed on the western model that we are protected against deep confusion; in other words, we are protected from the possibility of listening and understanding.

Ever since 1976, I have gone north as often as I can. This year those of us who organize the LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture with the Institute for Canadian Citizenship held it in Iqaluit. The Inuit leader Siila Watt-Cloutier spoke about the North and about Canada as a whole as seen from a northerner’s point of view (a transcript is available on the ICC’s website at And that really is the point. The key to Canada as a northern or Arctic or circumpolar nation is the people of the North.

People like myself ought therefore to be happy with the place the North and the Arctic in particular are now playing in our news and sometimes in our daily conversations. I read. I listen. Yet what I hear is mainly the South talking to the South and sometimes to the outside world about the North. There are a few signs, but very few, of any attempt to see the North from the North’s point of view.

Most of the sovereignty debate has been framed in old-fashioned western empire terms: We have a distant frontier that must be defended. This frontier is ours, not theirs, whoever they may be. It is only in this context that the people of the North are mentioned, as if the reason for their existence were to serve Canadian sovereignty. There is little sense in all of this that the well-being and success of the people of the North is a purpose in and of itself. And they do not need to be the guarantors of our sovereignty—even though they are—in order to deserve well-being and success. They deserve these exactly as any other Canadian citizen deserves them.

Besides, the whole idea of sovereignty is meaningless if we cannot sustain a long-term, solid northern policy. Today there is southern-style enthusiasm. Very little of this seems attached to such northern realities as housing shortages, ill-adapted school curricula and difficult communications of every sort. And this raises the old fear that something else will soon catch our fancy and the North will retreat once again from the general public consciousness and that of the government.

This failure to build and maintain a strong, integrated northern policy and northern foreign policy is clearly laid out in Arctic Front: Defending Canada in the Far North, a book written by Ken Coates, Whitney Lackenbauer, William Morrison and Greg Poelzer, four sensible northern experts. They argue that this is just a continuation of Canada’s incapacity as a state to sustain any serious level of attention on the North. Northern success is all about continuity and maintenance, internally and internationally. Periodic enthusiasms do not do the trick.

This essay focuses on the Arctic. But the larger context is that we are a northern nation. Two thirds of our country lies in what is normally categorized as North lands. One third of our gross domestic product comes out of the three territories and the equally isolated northern parts of our provinces. And that one third is what makes us a rich, not a poor, country. Our cities, our high-tech service-based lives are built upon the foundation provided by that one third of riches. And now the South believes that the percentage of the GDP coming from the Arctic section of the North will grow. We ought to be a central player in the northern world in general and in particular in the circumpolar world. But first we all need to see ourselves as part of it and, at the moment, we do not.

The current Arctic enthusiasm instead resembles an updated manifestation of George Brown’s old rep by pop argument, in which the shape and direction of Canada are supposed to be controlled simply by those who have the most votes. We act as if the second largest country in the world is only real in a handful of southern cities. That is why our current approach to Arctic sovereignty has such a Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa-Calgary-Vancouver feel to it. And that is why there is little sign of the balance between people and place that has always been and remains central to Canada’s success. In this atmosphere, the point of view of northerners is treated as if it weighed three House of Commons seats, which is what a strict geographical definition of the region allots them: three territories, one seat apiece. And so, throughout our history, when the moment comes to spend the money or talk about the issues, ministers tend to become distracted by a bridge in their riding or in a swing riding, and the northern monies evaporate.

Our contemporary northern history therefore looks like this. In the early 1970s, there was little southern interest in things northern. Then came the oil crisis and with it a southern passion for energy sources under the ice. The Berger Commission revealed, even to the half-asleep majority, that northerners had a point of view and enough power to impose themselves. Then the South slipped back into disinterest. Suddenly a U.S. ship—the Manhattan—made its way through the Northwest Passage. This produced a sovereignty panic in the 1980s. A flood of ardent reactive policies followed. These quickly evaporated and the South fell back asleep. But northerners and a small number of committed southerners worked hard through the 1990s to produce real action—not reaction, but something healthy, with roots. The result was a series of northern land settlements, the growth of Nunavik, the creation of Nunavut, the Arctic Council, a serious northern foreign policy in 2000 and so on. The 21st century brought a brutal political reaction against these initiatives, as if our infatuation with economic integration with the United States meant that we were an urban people for whom the northern nature of our country was an embarrassment. In effect, the South once again forgot the North. There was, however, a strong enough northern and pro-North institutional base for quiet work to continue. The Makivik Corporation in Nunavik expanded. Leaders such as Paul Okalik, Nellie Cournoyea, Mary Simon, Siila Watt-Cloutier and others worked ceaselessly; northern studies expanded in the universities. All of this was happening below the political radar.

And then the most recent sovereignty panic began, largely spurred by the rapider-than-expected effects of climate change. With the northern icefields turning into navigable ocean passages, other countries began viewing “our” North as an international highway. Overnight, urgent reactive promises were again being made in Ottawa by the very people who five years before had denigrated northern policies. People have the right to change their minds. And the difference this time is that northerners are far better organized and are prepared to navigate the political waters. And yet the new promises and policies continue to resemble old-fashioned southern views of the North.

Northerners keep pointing this out. But in order to be heard, ideas and arguments must pass through the national communications systems. And these systems, whether political or journalistic, are run through a reconceptualization process in three southern cities.

Take a very simple example. Among all the new military promises, only one directly involves northerners. The Rangers are a highly successful part-time force of 4,000 spread throughout the northern two thirds of Canada. They play both a military and a search and rescue role, as well as an important social function for youth with the Junior Rangers. For example, hunters are traditionally men. Through the Junior Rangers, teenage girls are becoming good shots and then hunters, which can give them great self-confidence.

Throughout the North, the Rangers are the most important presence of the Canadian state. They have great experience on the land. And yet there are virtually no regular force officers involved. And there are virtually no northerners serving in command positions above their particular communities. The Ranger Patrols—as they are called—are trained by very good regular force warrant officers who, from what I have seen, love working outside the normal army system and being in the community.

The costs of all of this are minimal. On parade the Rangers wear a red sweatshirt and baseball cap, although this is now changing. Their rifles are basic, but good. Almost everything else is their own.

The new national policy is to expand the Rangers to 5,000, and that is a good thing. But there is no public debate about the existing model and whether it should change. For example, the Rangers could be structured into a formal regiment, to put them on the same level as the rest of the regular and militia forces. Their regions could be structured as battalions and integrated on an east-west northern basis. Under the current system each Ranger area is tributary to the southern commands immediately below them—a perfectly colonial structure.

One of the other new promises is for an Arctic training centre. Again a good idea, but for what purpose? It could be used to bring northerners into the full-time regular army at all rank levels so that the new regiment would be led increasingly by northerners, just as all our other regiments are led largely by people from the part of Canada in which they are based. This process could be sped up by the new Aboriginal Leadership Opportunity Year (ALOY) program, which is run out of the Royal Military College in Kingston and aims to draw aboriginal youth into the officer corps. In other words, the Rangers could become a regiment with a core of regular force, largely northern leaders and a majority remaining in the militia.

But let’s go back to the conceptualization process. If this is a northern unit, why are the Rangers dressed in baseball caps and sweatshirts? You can’t wear this outfit outside ten months of the year. Of course, this is more or less a dress uniform, but why a dress uniform that has to be worn inside? The whole idea and reality of the Rangers is that they are outside and on the land. Their outfit is symbolic of a southern view, symbolic of a generalized southern failure to support the development of northern equipment.

For example, we do not produce snowmobiles appropriate to the Arctic. Each time I am with Rangers, they point out the weaknesses of what is available. The best machines are made by Bombardier in Finland. The explanation no doubt is that our Arctic market is not big enough for such specific-use machines. Why, then, are those machines made in Finland (population five million)?

When you are out on the land in full winter most of the machines Canadians use freeze up so badly overnight that the common way to get them going is to turn the machine on its side (even the block is placed according to southern logic). Then all the men stand in a circle and pee on the block. This is just the beginning of a 30-minute start-up process—not very helpful in a crisis. I have thought, while standing in these circles, that basic details often reveal how Canada’s practical imagination has not focused on the North; and how the practical imagination of northerners has been prevented from shaping what is done.

When you look at the heavy hand of the South on northern architecture or power systems or education methods or food supply systems, you begin to realize how difficult it has been and remains for the new Arctic leadership in particular to put a northern perspective in place. Not always, but very often, the insistent and unimaginative ideas coming from the South have solved immediate specific difficulties while creating systemic problems.

If southern Canadians are now seriously concerned about the status of the North, then this is an ideal moment to listen to what northerners are saying. They are continuing to suggest a myriad of approaches, practical and philosophical. The latter, among the Inuit, is often called IQ—Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit. This is often translated as Inuit traditional ways or culture. But as Peter Irniq and Frank Tester point out in the December 2008 issue of Arctic, that suggests something anthropological, something locked in the past. Or it is seen as “a ‘holistic’ concept that includes spiritual as well as factual knowledge.” This western interpretation suggests that “understanding the whole can be achieved by understanding the parts.”

This is just the sort of interpretation that comforts southern-style science in the North. It involves endlessly collecting information that is meant one day to add up to something. That’s fine. By all means keep on collecting. The results are fascinating and no doubt useful. But it is this approach that has comforted two decades of inaction. For example, the science of glaciers is fascinating. There is more to learn. But precise pictures have been taken of them for a half-century. Anyone can hold those pictures in their hands and fly low over the glaciers and compare. The glaciers are melting. The next step is action. Or as Watt-Cloutier put it in her LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture: “Slowing down climate change would be the best long-term solution to enforcing Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.” After all, that sovereignty is only in question because the ice is melting.

The point of IQ, or, more broadly, northern philosophies, is that they provide a completely different approach to the Arctic reality—a non-western, non-silo, non-sum-of-the-parts approach. Irniq and Tester call this a seamless approach. It is one in which the human is seen as an integrated part of the place. And so IQ relates to the Cree idea of Witaskewin—living together in the land—and the West Coast Nuu-chah-nulth world-view of Tsawalk—everything is one.1

These are philosophies of harmony and balance. They are indeed seamless and appropriate evocations of our physical reality. They remove the separation of the human from the place—that separation that has brought us many wonderful things, more recently along with global warming and an incapacity to act when what we think of as scientific progress seems to contradict the stability of our physical reality. The southern idea is that progress is an uncontroversial reality that solves problems. Anyone sitting on the outside of western philosophy simply responds: what do you mean by progress?

No one in the North is saying that southern science or its concepts of progress should simply go away. What northerners are perhaps saying is that the philosophical concepts that shape most southern ideas are undermining the advantages and promoting destructive side effects. And these side effects are now becoming their principal outcome. Northern architecture, for example, continues to evolve largely from southern assumptions. Technical problems, such as dealing with cold, are solved on a one-off basis. But there is no debate about what Arctic buildings should look like and what their relationship to each other should be. What should the underlying principles of those shapes be? Do southern assumptions and solutions about housing cause family and even broad social problems while concentrating on heating systems?

The stubbornness of the western intellectual approach and the relentless self-promotion of its silo structures make it very difficult for northern leaders to inject their own philosophical approaches into the heart of their own policy making. The southern, western system insinuates itself everywhere with religious fervour.

And yet there are breakthroughs. Nunavut is now building a cultural school, called Piqqusilirivvik, and is doing so with interesting architecture. It will be in Clyde River, up the east coast of Baffin Island. The school will promote the reality of a fundamentally northern and non-western philosophy. And Nunavut is working hard to get itself out from under the Alberta school curriculum, which shapes Arctic schools in a way that undermines Inuktituk and an integrated northern life. The recent Nunavut Education Act is making another stab at correcting this problem.

Perhaps most problematic is that there is still no university in the Canadian North. We remain the only circumpolar country without northern or Arctic universities.

We have hundreds, perhaps thousands, of northern experts. Almost all of them are based in southern universities. All our Arctic study centres are in southern universities. Millions of public dollars are invested every year in these southern universities to work on the North. And most of this money stays in the south. Doctorates on the North are organized and written in the South, with periodic trips up to check things out. MAs on the North are done in the South, perhaps with one or two research visits to the distant frontier. Lecturers are hired in the South. Tenure track is in the South.

Yes, there are worthwhile programs aimed at producing northern lawyers, nurses and so on. These contractual arrangements with southern universities are delivered by excellent northern colleges, but the intellectual form, the conceptualization, the real control remain largely in the South.

What this means is that there are no intellectual centres based in the North at which students can gather and then make their way. Why? Because they are all in the South. And public money—federal and provincial—keeps it this way.

This is a fundamental Canadian failure. It is a failure of our intellectual class. What we have is a colonial structure.

Four other circumpolar countries, each with populations a fraction of ours, have healthy northern universities, as does Alaska, as does Russia. Canada alone continues to treat northern higher education in a colonial manner.

Among the new policies coming out of Ottawa is the promise of an Arctic research centre. Another good idea. But without universities in the North, this will simply comfort our southern institutions in their “live south, work south, invest south, think south, visit north” structure. Norway—population four million—has leapt far ahead of Canada—population 33 million—with their Arctic research centre. Theirs is served by a very good northern university. Ours will serve universities in the South.

What is our excuse? Usually that we don’t have the concentration of population or the infrastructure necessary to justify such universities. No other circumpolar country says this. Why? Because they believe that part of being a northern country is that you must create the intellectual and physical infrastructure in the North from which everything can grow. Imagine five federal research chairs in each of three northern universities. The reality of centres of excellence would rush north overnight.

In the meantime southern Canada, with the national government, the administrative structure, the universities and businesses, continues to act as if northerners were not full Canadians and the North not an integrated part of who we are. Above all, the South still has not absorbed the reality that northerners have modern leadership views—both philosophical and practical—on how their part of the country could function.

Three universities in the North (or one with three different campuses) matter because they are the key to building fully rounded northern communities. These are institutions northerners could attach themselves to, places young southerners would be attracted to. They would immediately become a reason for young northerners to finish high school, as they are continually admonished to do in an old-fashioned southern way—Get an education and get a job. But what sort of education? Will it relate to the North? Will it help young people to build their north or cut them off from it, and make them insecure because it only makes sense in the South? And what kind of job? Where?

These simple questions could be partially answered in a positive way if there were northern-imagined centres of excellence in the North. Which raises the strategic point in conceptualizing these universities, one that relates to IQ and northern approaches to learning.

There are already good colleges in the three northern capitals. They need to be strengthened and expanded to fully cover the essential areas of utilitarian training. But there is no need for universities that are basically fancy training centres, or for imitation southern universities in the North.

This is what an increasing number of northerners who have made their way through the southern system are saying. One group of young lawyers and public administrators in Iqaluit—Sandra Inutiq, Elisapi Davidee-Aningmiuq, Kirt Ejesiak, Hugh Lloyd and Aaju Peter—has created the Ilitturvik University Society to advance the idea of programs “politically, economically, culturally and socially relevant to the Arctic and Inuit.”2 Another group, in the Northwest Territories, has created a project called Dechinta, aimed at a field school approach toward post-secondary education.3

These young people have all more than proved themselves in the southern university system. They are a small part of a growing critical mass of young northern leaders.4 What they are saying is that those southern systems are not appropriate to the North. So there is now a remarkable opportunity to break away from the disease of the silo education and utilitarian approaches, which have so damaged our southern universities. We have the opportunity to recognize that this approach is central to our incapacity to act when faced by crises such as climate change.

We have seen that model fail when faced with the reality of the North, the needs of the North. There is every reason to embrace the seamless model being put forward by an increasing number of northerners.

  1. See, for example, Harold Cardinal and Walter Hildebrandt’s Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan (University of Calgary Press, 2000) or Umeek-E Richard Atleo’s Tsawalk, A Nuu-chah-nulth Worldview (British Columbia Press, 2004).[back

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  4. For example, see those who have spoken out in Northern Exposure: Peoples, Powers and Prospects in Canada’s North, edited by Frances Abele, Thomas Courchene, Leslie Seidle and France St.-Hilaire and produced by the Institute for Research on Public Policy in 2009.