Trudeau Confronts Challenge of Climate and Economy in Canada’s Far North

Justin Trudeau won Canada’s highest office with a pledge to find a balance between its fossil-fuel-driven economy and a more muscular plan for climate change. Eight years later, it’s still one of his biggest challenges, encapsulated by what’s happening in the Arctic.

(Bloomberg) — Justin Trudeau won Canada’s highest office with a pledge to find a balance between its fossil-fuel-driven economy and a more muscular plan for climate change. Eight years later, it’s still one of his biggest challenges, encapsulated by what’s happening in the Arctic.

The country’s north is potentially rich in untapped resources and lucrative new supply routes that are opening up with warmer temperatures. It’s also burning: residents of Yellowknife, the second-largest city in the northern territories, were evacuated because of encroaching wildfires, another chapter in the worst summer for forest fires on record in Canada.

For Trudeau’s government, climate disasters, rising populism, inflation and other problems are creating pressure on all sides. But building a sustainable economy “is the only thing that’s going to matter in 50 years,” he said in an interview.

His legacy is very much on his mind these days. During the 30-minute conversation, he invoked the lessons of his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who served 15 years in the job. 

“I got shaped in my perception of what politics actually does by understanding that my father’s legacy was about big things that he did that shaped the country for the next half century, whether it was multiculturalism, official languages, or especially the charter of rights and freedoms,” Trudeau said during the interview, held on the sidelines of an environmental conference in Vancouver. “The big things that matter are at the heart of everything, and you can’t get the big things done unless you take care of people every step of the way.”

Taking care of Canadians means trying to solve problems that remote Indigenous communities have been living with for generations — issues such as housing shortages, sky-high food costs, lack of medical resources or inadequate infrastructure. In one of the world’s richest countries, not even clean water is guaranteed in the north.

Meanwhile, recent events have moved the region onto the world stage. Russia’s war in Ukraine has increased the military value of Canada’s northern territories, even as climate change begins to open polar trade routes. Economic opportunities abound — from tourism to shipping to deep water ports — and there is growing interest in the vast natural resources thought to lie below the Arctic seabed floor. 

At the same time, the need to protect vast tracts of carbon-sequestering permafrost and sun-reflecting ice has never been greater.

Among the criticisms frequently leveled at the 51-year-old Trudeau is that his focus on the big picture comes at the expense of action on more immediate problems. During the interview — held on a day on which Vancouver’s air was thick with smoke from wildfires linked to Arctic warming — he tried to counter that argument. 

Too many politicians succumb to the “short-term temptation” to sacrifice the environment to deal with pressing economic concerns, he said. 

The Arctic is a case in point. Canada has the second-largest Arctic region in the world after Russia but its footprint has always been light, in terms of population, military presence and economic investment. What’s needed is a holistic approach to create sustainable economies that benefit Northern communities and the environment, Trudeau said. 

“They’re all different facets of the exact same thing. So as we look at the need to build better energy sources and energy generation in the North, that’s renewables. It’s getting off diesel, it’s maybe looking at small modular reactors. These are things that have economic benefits, environmental benefits and security benefits, as we’re investing in infrastructure.”  

It also means opposing projects that will contribute to climate change, particularly the exploitation of largely unmeasured, but potentially vast, oil and gas resources. Trudeau has faced pushback against his climate policies from the energy sector, and the country’s slow progress in phasing out fossil fuels is one reason it’s not on track to reach its global climate commitments. 

As climate change opens the Arctic to more marine traffic, and potentially lucrative natural resources, the region stands to become a microcosm of the kind of competing interests seen elsewhere.

In 2016, Trudeau’s Liberal government, along with the US, announced a moratorium on drilling new oil and gas wells in the Arctic Ocean. That led to some “difficult discussions” with territorial governments but was necessary because of the region’s remoteness, Trudeau says. “We simply don’t have the technology, or the capacity, to respond to any sort of emergency or accident.”

Trudeau has also worked to make Indigenous consultation part of the earliest stages of the approval process for new projects as part of a broader move to Inuit self-determination. In the past, natural resource projects, such as mines, were often imposed on Indigenous communities that reaped few rewards. When residents began pushing back, the result was lengthy court delays frequently cited by investors as a deterrent to doing business in Canada.

The system that is in place now isn’t perfect but it’s getting better, Trudeau argued, as communities come to understand they will “benefit from the resources of the land in a very modern way, but in a way that gives them confidence and empowers them.” 

“That’s the change that gives clarity to investors. That’s the change that gives the ability to know that when a project is approved, it’s going to stay approved because that’s what killed Canada’s reputation.” 

The government is also focused on creating Inuit stewardship of large areas of protected land and marine areas. “There are opportunities for sustainable livelihoods through conservation that I think we hadn’t properly understood even a decade ago,” he said. 

Along the way, “thriving” communities will be created which, in the end, may be the best way to secure Canada’s sovereign reach, Trudeau said. Canadian prime ministers have taken different approaches to establishing dominion over the North, sometimes turning to international law, sometimes military investment, and sometimes using people to plant the flag, as in an infamous policy in the 1950s that saw Inuit tricked into relocating to High Arctic islands, where they faced enormous hardship.

Trudeau’s road map will require money and time but, if it works, has the potential to align the economy with Canada’s view of itself as a prosperous nation that also values human rights and the environment. The “idea of the North” is what “suffuses us, and inspires us, in what we think about in terms of Canada’s nature,” he said.

“You cannot continue to uphold the promise of Canada unless you secure it on all levels. That means peoples’ safety, that means climate stability, that means economic security. That means all of those things together.”

–With assistance from Laura Dhillon Kane.

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