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What Will Justin Trudeau Do in the Arctic?

Canadians voted for change this week. What does that mean for the North?
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Justin Trudeau. (Photo: arindambanerjee/Shutterstock)

Justin Trudeau. (Photo: arindambanerjee/Shutterstock)

You might have heard: Canada has a hot new prime minister. But what does that mean for the country's vast Arctic and sub-Arctic regions in the north?

The northern territories all voted for wholesale change: The three incumbent Members of Parliament—the right-wing Conservative party's Ryan Leef in the Yukon, Leona Aglukkaq in Nunavut, and the left-leaning New Democratic Party's Dennis Bevington in the Northwest Territories—were all turfed out. In their place, three Liberal party members of parliament will be headed to Ottawa as part of Justin Trudeau's new majority government.

I talked to veteran northern journalist Chris Windeyer about what this all means for Canada's Arctic. Windeyer spent six years reporting for Nunavut's excellent local paper, Nunatsiaq News, and another three years working as an editor at Up Here Business magazine in the Northwest Territories, before settling down in Dawson City, Yukon, as a freelancer. He's a frequent contributor to CBC North, a columnist for Edge YK, and one of the smartest people I know on all things Arctic.


Were you surprised by the results in any of the three Northern ridings on Monday night?

I was surprised by Dennis Bevington losing. He's fairly well regarded by people, and the Liberals had been in the wilderness federally in the Northwest Territories for so long, I figured he was safe.

I was also a little surprised by how badly Leona Aglukkaq lost. I kind of figured the New Democratic Party and Liberals would split enough of the vote that she might sneak up the middle. She still has a lot of support, and she's not nearly as ham-fisted a politician as her stint as environment minister would suggest. But the protest vote really coalesced around Hunter Tootoo, and tons more people turned out to vote. She actually got more votes than when she won for the first time in 2008, but like a lot of other places in Canada, many Liberals who sat out the last couple of elections came back to the polls in force.

(Photo: Chris Windeyer)

(Photo: Chris Windeyer)

It'll be interesting to see how a Trudeau government handles the North. We've grown used to Stephen Harper's annual Arctic photo ops and laundry lists of promises. Do you think having three Liberal MPs will make any difference in terms of the territories having a voice in Ottawa?

It can't hurt, particularly with Hunter Tootoo already being touted for a cabinet spot. Larry Bagnell's been in the game for a long time. Michael McLeod has a lot of political experience. But they're also three guys out of a caucus of 184, and Trudeau made an awful lot of promises to a lot of different people during the campaign.

Let's not forget that before Harper's Northern photo ops came Pierre Trudeau's Northern photo ops. And Justin had his own photo of him mushing a dog team that was attached to his ridiculous attempt at a catchphrase: "Big sled, no dogs." The North is just natural backdrop country I guess.

But there were some good ideas in the Liberal platform: The Northern residents tax deduction puts a lot of money back into the Northern economies, and pegging it to inflation is something people have been pleading for here for years. Throwing more money at Nutrition North is throwing good money after bad without some broader improvements. There's also vague talk about more money for affordable housing and climate change preparedness, which would be welcome. But I think we'd be advised to wait and see on that.

Would you expect any major changes of direction for Arctic policy under Trudeau? I guess I'm wondering about stuff like Canada's territorial claims (up to and including the North Pole), the possibility of offshore drilling in the Beaufort Sea—that sort of thing.

I think that we'll immediately see less belligerence toward Russia at Arctic fora like the Arctic Council, where Canada at times sidelined itself by being so obstinate.

As for offshore drilling, the price collapse of oil has basically taken that off the table for years and years. There are rumblings of a recovery in commodity prices, which could mean renewed interest in metals mining. If that's the case, it will be interesting to see if the Liberals retain the regulatory changes the Conservatives put in place, which are so reviled they're being challenged in court. That could be a real headache left behind for the new government.

You're referring to Bill S-6?

Yeah, S-6. And the Tlicho in the Northwest Territories are suing to stop the superboard—basically the new regulatory agency in the NWT that reviews resource projects.

Let's say you had Justin Trudeau's ear, briefly. What advice would you offer him about how to handle the North? What, in your view, should be his priority in the Arctic?

Well, I guess I would urge him not to ignore the territories' domestic issues. They vary from place to place of course, but housing, energy, food security, and infrastructure are probably the main priorities. It's not just one thing. The bottom line is that if Canada wants to improve social and economic outcomes in the territories, it's going to cost a lot of money up front. This is a reality the Harper government tried to avoid. And the federal government will have to work with the territorial and indigenous governments, land claim organizations, and municipalities.

But the Liberals will also have to follow through on the Conservative projects that are underway: the Canadian High Arctic Research Station, Nanisivik, the new Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships. The Arctic is such a massive file that something's going to be neglected.

Jesus, whoever [Trudeau's] northern lieutenant is, is going to have their work cut out.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Dispatches From a Changing Arctic is a biweekly series of reported stories from Alaska and the three Canadian northern territories.