Does Stephen Harper Know Canada is a Northern Nation?

Bert Archer is a Canadian author, journalist, travel writer, essayist and critic. He is the...

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After spending just under two weeks in the Arctic this month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s annual photo-op trip seems, for a few reasons, even odder than usual.

As I walked around Iqaluit and Pangnirtung, and after talking to some of the people who live there (and others who’ve visited many times), it became clear that the North is not, in fact, anything like a priority for the PM, at least not as far as the people who live there and where they actually live are concerned. This is the first reason. The houses in both places look like they were put up as part of a lumber camp—temporary domiciles with no need for things like aesthetic considerations or durability. In neither Pangnirtung, population 1,300, nor Iqaluit, population 6,700 and the capital of Nunavut, were the roads paved. There is no pier, meaning ships cannot dock, and must anchor off shore. And, even there were a pier, there’s no place for ships to refuel—not in Iqaluit, Pangnirtung, or anywhere along the east coast of Nunavut. There is garbage, though—not just candy wrappers and pop cans, but big, scalable piles of refuse everywhere.

Which brings me to the second reason I find Harper’s Arctic visits peculiar: If I were him, I would frankly be embarrassed to set foot up there. It’s a mess, and not just municipally: The suicide rate among the Inuit, region-wide, is 11 times the national average.

I’ve had friends visit the North before. This wasn’t all news to me and, I admit, I thought maybe it came with the territory. It is, after all, really far away. It’s expensive to get stuff up there. The winters must be hell on any physical structures. And infrastructure? Forget it. Plumbing, electricity, roads—these are southern things. They don’t have them in the Antarctic, so why would they have them in the Arctic? It sounded unfortunate, but, unfortunately, about right.

Then I crossed the Davis Strait, the body of water that separates Nunavut from Greenland—two territories populated by Inuit and governed as parts of two of the world’s most developed nations that, I was genuinely shocked to discover, could not be more different.

I didn’t know much about Greenland before I went. Based on its colour on the map, I presumed—correctly, as it turns out—that it’s mostly ice cap. I also knew that it was, oddly, part of Denmark; that was about it. The shock set in the moment the ship I was on—the Arctic Explorer, chartered by Adventure Canada to introduce 120 of us to the North—docked at the pier in Sisimiut, the second-largest town in Greenland, with a population of about 5,500. Beyond the fact that it had a pier at all, it was when I looked out over the town that the differences became obvious: The houses looked like houses. Nice houses. Mostly primary-coloured A-frames that looked for all the world like they were meant to be lived in with a degree of pride and pleasure. There were lawns. The roads were paved. Cafes, bars and restaurants were laid out so one could walk from one to another. There were shops. They had WiFi.

As we explored, having just spent a tumultuous, nauseating night crossing the strait, I would not be exaggerating to say that at least some of us did not quite believe what we were seeing: The contrast between this and what we had just left behind in Canada was shockingly stark. Then a city bus drove past. We spent the next week or so darting in and out of half a dozen towns and villages, some with populations as little as 100. The single most common topic of conversation was The Difference Between Greenland and Nunavut. Sisimiut was the largest Greenland town we visited, but it was not the last transit system we saw—it was, in fact, one of three.

Various onboard experts and locals alike explained several reasons for these differences. The currents are warmer along the western coast of Greenland than they are in Nunavut, which means there are more fish and ports that are open for more of the year. Greenland has also been colonized for about 300 years—the Danes reached Sisimiut in 1720. These are not insignificant differences, but neither are they excuses. In Kangerlussuaq, the southernmost town in which we stopped, we were told winter temperatures dropped to nearly -60C. And yet, their roads were paved, just like every other place we went, including Itilleq, with its population of about 100. The houses, again, looked remarkably house-like, and were apparently able to withstand the same winters they have in Nunavut.

This is not to say life in Greenland is by any means ideal. It has a suicide rate of 1 in 1,000—the same as Nunavut’s last year, and the highest in the world. Greenland does, however, have more industry than Nunavut—even Itilleq has a fish processing plant, with an annual budget roughly the same as Nunavut’s (just under $2 billion) and a population that’s about 20,000 higher (about 55,000 versus Nunavut’s 34,000). The difference, it would seem, is management rather than dollars—which means the recent announcement of $100 million in federal funds for social housing for Nunavut over the next two years doesn’t necessarily mean much. It’s not how much is spent, but, rather, how it’s spent, and Canada doesn’t seem to know how to spend money up there.

I think I know why.

Denmark sees itself as a northern nation. The people there refer to themselves as Nordic, as do the neighbouring Swedes and Norwegians. Denmark is northern, so nothing northern is alien to them; they seem to see Greenland as an extension of themselves. Canada, however, sees itself as a southern nation, more like the United States or Europe, which makes Nunavut seem like a foreign country. It befuddles us, and we throw up our hands and stop trying. Harper and his predecessors seem to be stuck in the same frame of mind I was before I visited. It’s the North, they seem to say: $10 for a pint of cherries? $100 for an Arctic char? Dirt roads, tuberculosis, shantytown city planning? What’re you going to do?

Harper could start by dropping the “Arctic sovereignty” rhetoric and actually focusing (and spending money) on some of his own stated priorities, such as social and economic development, and stop trying to fool us into thinking that mining is Arctic development, when the land claim settlement for Nunavut stipulates it receives minimal royalty payments no matter what’s discovered and mined. It might not even hurt for him to take a shuttle over the Uummannaq, pick up a Kongens Bryg (brewed in Nuuk) at the Pilersuisoq, and talk to some folks about how they do it in Greenland.

All photos by Bert Archer

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