Northern Ontario and the Canadian “North”

From Yonge Street to Hudson Bay…

In the first week of November, I traveled to Sudbury, Ontario to do Year 1 of the Economic Developers Association of Canada’s (EDAC) professional certification training. The course was a week long and covered topics such as resource development and working with aboriginal communities.

While EDAC is a national professional organization, the course was very Ontario-focused, which is perhaps not surprising given that it was taking place in northern Ontario. When I first received the course schedule, I was a little apprehensive about the topics – would there be much relevant to working in Nunavut?

I quickly learned that although some topics were not that relevant – I won’t be trying to attract a paper mill to Arviat anytime soon – a lot of the issues and problems facing economic development professionals are the same, or at least similar enough to be educational. Many of the challenges that face the north are similar to those facing the northern parts of Ontario, and indeed the more rural and isolated parts of many Canadian provinces.

Surprising similarities

Throughout Northern Ontario, the major challenges communities face are isolation, lack of services and infrastructure, high levels of unemployment and low levels of education and training among the population. The culture, landscape, and human and natural resources might differ, but these are largely the same challenges that face much of Nunavut and the Canadian north. Some of them, such as transportation costs, may be more acute in the north, but they are similar nonetheless.

Much of the EDAC Year 1 course was focused on activities and economic development in First Nations communities in northern Ontario, which face similar challenges in terms of culture, isolation, and employment as many communities in Nunavut. Several sessions focused on economic development and projects in First Nations communities, with important lessons for people like me who are still learning about the communities that we work in. Similarities aside, I did find it quite amusing when people referred to Sudbury as “the North.” Being farther south than Vancouver, I thought that was a bit of a stretch and frequently ended up explaining exactly where Arviat is. It made me think about how important perception is. South of Vancouver it might be, but Sudbury is still the “north” to people who live near the shoreline of Lake Ontario.

Arviat may be a long way from Yonge Street, but what happens here should matter to all Canadians, just as what happens to all Canadians matters in Arviat.

The return trip from Sudbury to Nunavut took me through Toronto during the Remembrance Day long weekend, and I took a couple of days to see some friends and family there and enjoy the amenities of the big city. I couldn’t help but reflect on experiencing those two extremes of Canadian life within a day – the downtown core of a major international city like Toronto and a small, isolated but vibrant community on the coast of Hudson Bay like Arviat. These two places are about as close to polar opposites as the Canadian experience gets. I often talk (some might say complain) about the lack of awareness among Canadians of the realities of Canada’s north. But sitting in a Starbucks on Yonge St., it’s hard to blame people for not knowing as much as I would like about that part of the country. It’s not possible for people to be familiar with every corner of Canada. It’s just too big, and the north is very far away and in many ways, it is a different world.

That being said, I do think that Canadians have a responsibility to educate themselves about the challenges and opportunities faced by others who live in the same country, no matter how isolated and far away some parts of the country might seem. Arviat may be a long way from Yonge Street, but what happens here should matter to all Canadians, just as what happens to all Canadians matters in Arviat.

A big land…

It has now been over a year since my wife and I made the move from Newfoundland to Nunavut. Although in some ways it feels like we’ve been here a long time (in a good way!), in other ways everything still feels very new, and although we’ve made new friends and settled into new jobs, every day still brings something new.

On the last leg of my journey home from Ontario, flying from Winnipeg to Arviat, I watched  hundreds of miles of Canada unroll beneath the plane. The sheer endless expanse of land and water stretching in all directions makes it clear that there is still so much to explore. However long we stay in this part of the world, we will never have learned all there is to know about living and working here.

The views and opinions in this column are those of the author alone, and are not necessarily those of the Hamlet of Arviat, Government of Nunavut, any of its departments or agencies, or anybody else.

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