The North has long been seen as a defining ideal of Canada. We are a “northern” country on the world stage and like to see ourselves in the long European tradition of “hardy” northerners. Yet 90 percent of the Canadian population lives in its southern belt, within a few hundred kilometres of the US border, in urban or agricultural areas that bear little resemblance to the northern regions of Canada. While Canadians like to make fun of how little Americans know about our country (we all live in iglus!), for the most part we have very little knowledge about our own North. In the 70s, Mel Watkins referred to the Dene part of the Northwest Territories as a “colony within” Canada; in 2013 it’s hard to see evidence that anything has changed: the North as a whole remains a colony within Canada.
There are actually two Norths within Canada: the provincial norths of mostly subarctic terrain, often boreal forest; and the territorial Norths of subarctic and arctic landscapes. The former is often referred to as the “mid North,” or as Ken Coates and William Morrison once aptly called it, the “forgotten North.” The latter is often referred to as the “far North” or “North of 60” (referring to the sixtieth parallel, often the northern limit of provincial jurisdictions in Canada). The main difference between these regions is political: the territories have their own governments with at least the potential of giving their citizens some control over development, while within each provincial north a southern capital calls the shots.
Statistically, the mid and far North both involve large proportions of Aboriginal peoples. They also involve a more extensive social immiseration, representing at least among Aboriginal inhabitants developing- world-like levels of poverty. The mid North has become the driver of the Canadian economy as Harper’s policies revert Canada to a resource-exporting nation, while resource extraction in the far North has also seen enormous growth over the past decade.
The articles in this special issue deal with a range of questions that will give readers a much stronger sense of the issues and peoples at stake. From Innu resistance in Labrador to the new development projects threatening their traditional resource base, to a look at how mining companies in Canada have taken their colonial expertise to Central America, to a discussion of how the Nunavit government appears to be willfully blind to the desperate conditions of so many of its own citizens, to, finally, a hopeful story from northern Manitoba of a community using international mechanisms to protect its traditional land base — these articles illustrate how resource extraction, rather than an economic savior of the north bringing jobs jobs jobs, is certainly, from an Aboriginal perspective, an unmitigated social disaster.
The North is the site within Canada of a 500-year-old process: a global racial redistribution of wealth.
In Canada, that means in southern cities many people swagger around self-importantly and a very few have grown obscenely wealthy, all on the backs of misery in northern Aboriginal communities. They then feel earnestly sorry for all the pain while studiously ignoring that they are its cause, and shake their heads over the intransigence of these people who continue to insist on their right to live in their homelands. Stephen Harper is the ultimate expression of this whole mentality and approach: he pretends to stand on the world stage as if he actually has some ability other than as a paid cheerleader for the rich, while he actually stands on the breaking backs of Aboriginal peoples whose leaders he will barely bother to meet. But across the country new movements at the grassroots, from the Defenders of the Land to Idle No More, hold the promise that a new narrative can be written. What would a North where we actually respected Aboriginal and treaty rights look like? It will take an enormous popular struggle to answer a question that no one in the highest reaches of power today wants to hear.
This article appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Canadian Dimension (The Battle for Canada’s North).