August 16, 2017

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Time to take action on the north is now

As the weeks spin on, there are still no solutions in sight for that growing swarm of problems facing communities in northern Manitoba.

Problems such as closing the port in Churchill, cutting back and then suspending the rail service, a shrinking time frame for winter ice roads and limited local access to healthy food, medical care and quality education — even just having clean drinking water — are like the insects that make life miserable, but not impossible, for northern residents who live far from the Golden Boy.

News of some upgrades to cellphone service or access to the internet seem like public-relations maneuvers, leaving the main swarm untouched.

Foot-dragging on the problems of northern communities is inexcusable. Further, whatever the competing federal responsibilities might be, First Nations communities are equally part of our life together in Manitoba, and the provincial government should also address their basic needs.

First, the north is warmer than it was, and that trend is going to continue — likely even faster than has been predicted, because people are not transitioning to a lower-carbon lifestyle. We can blame that on other people, elsewhere, but in fact we are doing no better ourselves. The Manitoba government is not only shirking its responsibility to provide leadership on greenhouse gas emissions, but through cuts to public transit subsidies it is actually making things worse. Something constructive and substantial must be done, immediately.

For example, those winter roads will fast become a quaint memory instead of being a current, reliable transportation system. Northern communities dependent on winter roads for materials and supplies need to shift, rapidly, to some other form of transportation system. Given (as I recall) there is only one smaller aircraft in service converted to carry four-by-eight plywood sheets, even getting building materials into the north by air is a major issue. In emergencies, C-130s could handle some northern supply routes, but this is part of neither the mandate nor the transport capacity of the Canadian Armed Forces.

We need to find another way — which is where those airships of Barry Prentice come in. Critics wondered how well airships would work in cold weather... but why not see them instead as the summer equivalent of those (disappearing) winter roads? The winter road season was only two or three months at best, but it made northern communities sustainable. In comparison, airships could run for at least six months a year before extreme cold in the far north grounded their efforts. With global warming, that season will likely be extended, as (on average) temperatures everywhere go up.

Second, distances into the north will never get shorter. Any transportation system must deal with distance, volume, weather and changing climatic conditions. The best answer is always local, finding some sustainable way to supply the essential needs of northern communities and First Nations.

Need power? Generate it locally, rather than relying on diesel being shipped in for generators. Solar, geothermal, wind — all these could provide basic power needs, if there were capital assistance provided by governments or by government/private partnerships, including partnerships with First Nations.

Need good food? Same answer. Much has been said lately about subsidies for transporting food into the north. Subsidize ways of growing healthy food locally, instead of subsidizing the air transport of foods that are not always healthy. Health-care costs of people in the north needing costly medical flights south for treatment would be also reduced, in the longer term, if better foods were available.

Need quality education? Have trouble getting teachers to move into remote communities? Wire northern communities into the internet and use distance education tools, in combination with local facilitators, to deliver different (and culturally appropriate) education from elsewhere.

As for Churchill, it is Canada’s only deep-water port on the rapidly melting Arctic Sea coast, serviced by one inadequate rail line. Potentially, Churchill has huge commercial importance, especially as sea levels rise and affect port facilities on our other coasts. The fact nothing has been done to tackle solvable problems is simply shameful. It is evidence not only of poor business judgment, but also of neglect when it comes to Canada’s national security interests.

Russia is far too close. For a few more years, its rapidly rusting fleet could still project significant force into an Arctic full of natural resources that a changing climate now makes accessible. If we do not take steps to demonstrate our sovereignty north of 60 (beyond occasional visits to Ranger units), such as developing the port of Churchill to handle higher volumes of marine and rail traffic, we risk losing the region altogether.

Peter Denton is adjunct associate professor of History at the Royal Military College of Canada and chairs the policy committee of the Green Action Centre.

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