Cold Urbanism: Revisiting Canada’s Challenges with Northern Sovereignty

by George Carothers

Recent headlines have captivated governments and northern communities around the Arctic Ocean as word of ongoing military surveillance missions has rekindled images from a Cold War pastime. Increasingly, it seems as though the world’s northern nations have re-entered into an era of resounding tension, exercising tools of soft power in order to stake their respective claim to the north. This comes at a time when an ever-growing interest in arctic resources has emerged as a focal point for politicians, oil-barons, and development financiers. The Arctic itself has become the latest victim in the growing dialogue on ‘contested space’.

Amidst a relatively uncertain era of Canadian politics, the national response has been to increase the emphasis on northern development, both economic and ‘social’. But what exactly does this type of development entail? What are the repercussions?

Canada has struggled with northern communities (and cities) throughout its history. Although fur-trading posts in the north formed the backbone of the early Hudson’s Bay Company, North America’s oldest commercial corporation, this later fell to greater economic development and prosperity in the south. As progressive urban development devoured the fertile fringe along the southern part of the country, deep economic and cultural bonds began to transverse the non-militarized border with America. Development was concentrated throughout this more livable region of Canada, and the “true north” remained largely empty, yet arguably “strong and free”.

Canada’s North has been neglected for several reasons, perhaps the most obvious being its relatively hostile climate. For many Canadians, a trip to the far north would be nothing short of an unenviable task. I for one have only arrived in the north for the first time after visiting nearly every other continent on the planet. As I write this piece from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, the average January low in Canada’s largest northern city sits at a balmy -24°F, with the record low of -60°F. At 62°N however, Yellowknife is still some 250mi (400km) south of the Arctic Circle – a far cry from a truly northern urban centre.

Yet Canada’s sore spot on the environmentalist’s checklist has provided incentives for a great deal of investment above the current northerly urban boundary. With some of the world’s largest reserves of oil and natural gas, the region has emerged as a lucrative opportunity for both domestic and foreign investment. However, this same resource-based prospect that has been embraced by Canada’s Conservative Government has landed the country in a violent storm of controversy elsewhere.

Amidst this discussion of sovereignty, development and growth northward sit some of Canada’s most historic and perhaps neglected ethnic communities. The First Nations and Inuit populations of Canada have long been a part of conversations in ‘contested space’. Initially consulted for their knowledge and know-how of northern living, the First Peoples of Canada were bribed out of their property with western vices and driven nearly to self-destruction. Hundreds of years and several generations later, these communities continue to struggle with alcoholism, drug abuse and domestic violence. Many communities, often consisting of a few houses, a general store and a local ice hockey rink, are situated in isolated regions where surface travel is available only during the winter, as rivers and lakes freeze to make way for ice roads. To this day, access in and out of these communities during the summer months is limited to privately chartered light aircraft.

But this is now beginning to change. As the concerns of sovereignty begin to loom over Canada's North, so do the challenges of trying to populate and urbanize the existing remote villages. In 2010, many of these communities will taste ‘western food’ for the first time, as traditional hunting and fishing looses ground to flown-in frozen TV dinners and processed cheese from the south. But is this truly the idea of protecting Canada’s sovereignty? Does a flown-in Bucket of KFC at a cost of $44.00 translate into a sustainable sovereign future? Surely the associated costs with the loss of environmental integrity and national heritage must be given some weight in this equation.

It seems as though the prospect of populating, urbanizing and developing the north is an uphill battle, as is protecting Canada’s sovereignty. One might think, however, that subsidizing Aboriginal and Inuit communities into an unforgiving and relentless cycle of misery is not the greatest step forward, but rather a form of cold and heartless urbanism.

How might Canada effectively exercise its soft power in the race for control of the north? Does the answer truly lie in developing and urbanizing one of the most unforgiving climates on the planet? Perhaps the answer is buried far beneath in the ice.

Credits: Photos of Fort Smith Airport, water tower, High Level Arena by George Carothers. Photo of Yellowknife from Agent Magenta. Photo of Inuit (1854) is Public Domain.


  1. Great post George!
    You raised some great points.

    I too wonder how the "northern way of life" will be affected by the over $100 billion being invested by the Canadian government into, seemingly, only those issues related to natural resource extraction.

    Also, how will this influx of investment and “foreign” thinking affect the north’s people?

    It would be sad to have such a rich heritage become diluted over time.

    Is adventure tourism really the only benefit to the locals that our government can come up with?


  2. George I would like to offer a very different perspective.

    Why wouldn't the northern First Peoples desire some of the aspects of modernity you allude to? I think your post raises several valid concerns regarding the quality of development in the Northern frontier. But it seems to assume that its residents are completely detached from civilization or would not want to access some of its most basic commodities or resources for that matter.

    Perhaps this is a romantic view of the First peoples? Why wouldn't they be capable of managing the influx of civilization per their own interests, concerns and values? Why is the assumption that their culture is static to begin with or needs to remain so in order to survive? They may very well deploy incoming traces of civilization per their own needs and interests while managing their cultural identity per their own needs and interests. "Native" peoples do this around the world with different degrees of success but it is ultimately for them to decide.

    I don't think Kentucky Fried chicken is the answer. But perhaps healthcare, jobs, and access to political representation may provide benefits. Of course this process entails contact, but also a degree of empowerment. Does a "native" view of residents in the Northern frontier aid the Canadian state in managing the terms for exchange and agreement as the frontier becomes a space of friction?

    Please feel free to disagree.

  3. I do agree with your excellent point, Hector, and it would be incredibly naive to simply assume that a particular group would detach themselves from this 'influx of civilization' that you had mentioned. I will expand, however.

    The First People's of Canada, by and large, have become very much a part of contemporary Canadian society, embracing a number of new traditions as well as holding on to historic ones. Integrative political processes have emerged along side new treaties to protect land rights and historic claims to particular forms of hunting and fishing.

    My point about the more isolated northern communities is perhaps somewhat shy in its scope and could take up an entire website to unearth, but its ultimately the 'type of development' that has been arriving within these areas that is concerning. Somewhere in this 'inclusive system', many First Nations and Inuit citizens who are supposed to be benefiting from these northern investment programs are simply falling through the cracks.

    Nunavut, for example, has one of Canada's highest average family incomes, but also has some of the highest measurements of deprivation in North America - emphasis placed particularly on the large Inuit and First Nations populations. The public health figures for these ethnic groups on infant mortality, pregnant women in abusive relationships, obesity, type II diabetes, drug and alcohol abuse and child abuse are devastating.

    Canada has only recently (June 2008) acknowledged a vast and crippling history (1860 - 1980) involving the forceful removal of aboriginal, Inuit and Metis children (150,000) from their traditional families/communities and into government-funded Residential Schools that were used to expedite a program of "aggressive assimilation". The results were catastrophic and it is now known that these children suffered wide-spread sexual and mental abuse while in the mandatory care of these schools. People, cultures, languages and traditions were institutionally destroyed.

    Without getting too much further into the enormous dialogue on Canada's dirty secrets, it is simply important to note that the issues surrounding northern development are not black and white. Rather than a romantic view, I'm afraid, it is more or less a contemporary, tragic reality. A great deal of damage and pain has been inflicted upon the First Peoples of Canada and the country is still in a relatively early stage of coming to terms with its past.

    Dumping full responsibility onto these communities to now embrace and direct economic development is not only unfair, but it is also occurring at a time when more encompassing problems with community stability, health, and social care need to take precedence.

    I completely agree with your emphasis on healthcare, jobs, and a more robust system of representation. Should economic development be the only way forward for a more sovereign nation, then all of these preceding things need to occur in conjunction with this proposed growth.


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