I just spent a fantastic week in lovely Kuujjuaq, Nunavik (northern Quebec). Despite the fact that it made me incredibly homesick for berry picking, fall boat trips, and seeing the beautiful fall colours on the ground and in the juniper (tamarack/larch) trees, it was an eye-opening experience. I’ve read and heard so many things about our northern Quebec cousins and the challenges they face (and the similarities to Labrador’s own). But nothing really drives it home like touring the community and its facilities – to hear it from the leaders and workers in the trenches. (Stick around a bit, I’ll come around to the opportunities for our province.)

I’ve always had a bit of a jealous spot for Nunavik. They have the recipe and ingredients for some amazing local governance. The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (treaty) in 1975 laid the foundation for a regional public government within the province, something I thought would be pretty darn nifty for Labrador. The Makivik Corporation handles all the Inuit governance stuff – hunting and fishing rights, managing treaty monies, investments, and all the other Aboriginal-type-stuff.  The Kativik Regional Government (KRG), Kativik School Board (KSB), and the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services (NRBHSS) handle all the public governance stuff for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal citizens alike.

Challenges in Nunavik (and the North)

I think it’s uber cool that the Makavik Corporation has taken the $90 odd million JBNQA settlement (for the dammed rivers in their territory) and, through investments, turned it into a $340+ million dollar group of subsidiary and partner corporations. But there are some serious challenges that still exist in Nunavik communities. In fact, some of the lowest socio-economic indicator scores of communities in Canada are in Nunavik. In theory they have some of the best governance tools of any sub-provincial government in the country. But there’s always a fight between Canada and the provinces on who should pay to address those challenges in Aboriginal communities.

And there are so many challenges: food prices are outrageous at 57% higher than the south – despite subsidies in place – household items 97% higher; electricity rates are quadruple what southern communities pay (27 cents/kwhr). Drop out rates. Suicide. Life expectancy of 65 years. Housing crisis. Contaminated country foods. Health. Telecommunications (let me tell you, at 7kbs download I was shocked – considering Nain has great broadband in comparison at similar latitude). Try to do business up there and you’ll see it’s not easy. In fact, they have it all laid out right here in the Plan Nunavik(English starts at p329).

Response to southern development agendas

Plan Nunavik was developed and produced in response to the pending release of Quebec’s Plan Nord. Kind of like a grown-up, fleshed out version of the Northern Strategic Plan for Labrador (except with real commitments and actual planning rather than a document of things they’re already doing – I’ve criticised this before). I thought it was a spectacular exercise for Nunavik to go through – listing their needs and conditions for support of the Plan Nord. Hearing presentations on the Plan Nunavik got me thinking about how we should be doing the same in Labrador.

But then that got me to thinking that we have some serious blinders on when we think about development in the north. Other than the obvious fact that we are physically part of provinces, why is it that Labrador should deal almost exclusively with Newfoundland? Or Nunavik with Quebec? Or Nunavut with Ontario, Northwest Territories – Alberta, or even Greenland with Denmark/Iceland? Have a look at any map of the north (click the one above!) and take your provincial border blinders off. The trade routes that skip from one region to the next, unintegrated, don’t make much sense do they?

There should be more inter-regional co-operation

Nunavut, Labrador, Nunavik, and Greenland currently have a population of over 120,000 people. While admittedly dispersed in small communities, they have growth rates several orders of magnitude faster than southern communities. And they’re all being (under) supplied by many different companies, Aboriginal governments/organisations, and provincial governments in the south (even though there is growing regional co-operation vis-a-vis the Northern Lights Trade brought to you on behalf of the Nunavik, Nunavut, and Labrador North Chambers of Commerce).

But the southern governments are doing a terrible job of co-operating or encouraging local businesses to capitalize on the many opportunities. Oops, sorry, there is the Northern Development Ministers Forum. But I’ve attended those, and followed the discussions/reports/chest-thumping. They tend to amount to what each jurisdiction is doing to exploit its own northern region, best practices, and so on. Yep, I’ve even sat in there and watched our province’s minister literally pick his nose while others presented their own single province solution for saving their little slice of the ‘north’.

It’s causing a housing (et al) crisis

What I find the most frustrating is throughout all the varied approaches for ‘serving’ the north, is that the very piecemeal approach that’s been adopted is causing some of the high costs associated with living in the north. Which in turn negatively impacts the residents who boldly maintain our sovereignty. Take housing. See this picture? These social housing units are prefab, and ‘cheaply’ produced at around $300,000 a pop. It’s likely in need of repair, much like nearly half of the other houses in Nunavik. Same story for Greenland and Nunavut, and parts of Labrador too.

Some southerners balk at the idea of social housing, and place the blame on Inuit/Aboriginals/northerners for not investing in their own homes. But if you do a little diggin around, you’ll find that even with a $227,500 private home ownership subsidy towards a half million dollar abode, very few people in Nunavik (3%) own their own homes. Why? It costs $2900-$3600 a month to maintain them – on top of food, and other such essentials. You try it. Couple that with a baby boom in the north (almost half of Inuit the population(s) are under 19) and an already short supply of homes: the existing housing crisis is about to go critical.

But challenges present opportunities

According to the Plan Nunavik, 1000 homes are needed today for Nunavik communities, another 3000 for Nunavut. At overcrowding rates of 49% for Nunavik, and 38% for the rest of the Inuit territories, coupled with rapid housing decay rates in the north, this problem is only going to compound – fast. So where’s the opportunity? In one of my rare nods of agreement in the direction of our former dear leader, our province should be making those homes and delivering those goods to the north. Look at that map again (click ‘er b’y).

All those goods that come from Montreal (skipping Labrador by the way) include the sea-lifted prefabricated homes. We are halfway there here in Labrador, and we have communities with ample supply of wood and workers in need of work, who can do it for lower wages than urban Quebec. There are no points of entry to the eastern Arctic closer than Labrador. And in fact, many of the social housing units in Nunavik are built by a local non-profit Aboriginal group. Which means all the money that would have gone as profits (15% or more) to southern companies go into savings for more housing units and give local people good jobs.

Why can’t we do that too?

There are three Aboriginal Groups in Labrador that can partner with Nunavik, Nunavut, and even Greenland to produce these needed homes (and other infrastructure) and increase employment levels in all of our regions. Why not capitalize on the opportunities Aboriginal governments present (they hire non-Aboriginal people too ya know, and give great opportunities to partner with schools and develop the trades!)? Heck, lets even build some houses in Newfoundland too! (But maybe keeping the election promises of 2003 to do this very thing would give people lots of jobs and interfere with getting support for a certain mega-project…)

But hey, if we did start building houses and other infrastructure for the north, instead of picking our proverbial noses, we could also take care of the shipping and warehousing of food and other household goods. Nunavik and Nunatsiavut currently both own shares in transhipment companies. I could expand some of my discussions (crazy ranting) about owning our own shipping and warehousing of goods, telecommunications (fiber optics and Microwave infrastructure are closer from this province to Nunavik than Quebec to Nunavik), or even interconnecting our electricity grids – but I’m out of space for this week.

Suffice it to say, we are the closest province with the most ready infrastructure to be serving Nunavik, Nunavut, and even Greenland and we’re literally watching that ship sail by our coasts.

I believe we can do it cheaper, and I believe we can do it better to forge partnerships with our Northern and Arctic cousins.

I also believe that it would build a solid foundation for this province to become one of the biggest players in the north and develop our own economies by lending a hand to our neighbours.