Too close to call

Canada’s easternmost province is increasingly finding that its economic and cultural connections are leading it to the North

Designed for tough weather. Tough markets, not so much (Photo: Marc Lanteigne)

Marc Lanteigne

From a geographic standpoint, describing the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador (NL) as ‘Arctic’ would at first glance appear to be considerably stretching the term. The island of Newfoundland (population 780,000) lies well south of the Arctic Circle, while the territory of Labrador, (population about 26,700), barely reaches as far north as the sixtieth parallel, (with ‘north of 60’ being the traditional Canadian definition of its part of the Arctic).

However, as with much of the Arctic, lines on a map do not tell the whole story as to where the frontiers of the circumpolar north lie. In several areas, including in the areas of politics, economics and research, Newfoundland has begun to develop an Arctic identity both within Canada and internationally.

As one recent commentary noted, Newfoundland and Labrador reflect much of both the Arctic’s past and its future, providing a prime example of the difficulties inherent in determining exactly where the various ‘geographies’ of the Arctic actually begin.

In addition to Canada’s three recognised Arctic territories, namely the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon, the province of Québec has garnered much recent attention for its Arctic policies in recent years due largely to the far northern initiatives brought forward by its government.

Chief among these has been Plan Nord, a sustainable development plan targeting the province’s far northern regions originally introduced by Premier Jean Charest in 2011 and strongly supported and promoted by the current Philippe Couillard administration. The Québec government also plans to host a breakout Arctic Circle Forum in December to focus on the questions of sustainable development practices in the Far North and drawing upon the experiences of other parts of the region.

In comparison, the policies of next-door NL towards the Arctic have been less visible, but arguably just as extensive. Looking at human geography, the Inuit and other northern indigenous populations of Labrador have been striving for self-government for decades. One of these processes began in the early 1970s with the creation of the Labrador Inuit Association and its subsequent submission of land claims in the northern part of the territory.

That endeavour culminated in the founding of the Government of Nunatsiavut in December 2005, which included a separate assembly and provisions to protect local culture and language. According to the last census in 2011, Nunatsiavut had a population of 2,325 Inuit, or slightly less than four percent of the total Inuit population of the country.

In central and southern Labrador, indigenous peoples are seeking a similar claim and recognition of the distinct territory of NunatuKavut. A Canadian Supreme Court ruling in April assisted with this goal by affirming, following a 17-year court battle, that the federal government did have specific responsibilities to the approximately 200,000 Métis and 400,000 non-status aboriginal peoples in the country, facilitating the NunatuKavut Community Council’s own land claims.

In the area of energy, eastern Canada, like other Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, was seriously affected by the sudden downturn in fossil fuel prices in 2015. These events were a considerable blow to the NL economy, which had been depending upon high oil prices to ultimately erase the economic damage caused by the collapse of local fish stocks since the early 1990s. After a decade of benefitting from high oil prices, the province is facing recession and unemployment over 14%.

As with many other actual and potential Arctic and near-Arctic drilling projects, there is a watch-and-wait attitude as to when prices will rebound to the point where drilling projects off the Newfoundland and Labrador coast become viable. Two promising offshore oilfields, according to reports released this year, are located in the Flemish Pass and the Orphan Basin, off the coast of Newfoundland Island.

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However, any major development in these areas will be difficult under the current circumstances, with petroleum prices remaining under $50 a barrel. A similar question hangs over the C$14 billion ($10 billion) Hebron Project, begun in 2007 and involving the construction of offshore facilities capable of enduring harsh weather and icebergs, to begin tapping petroleum in the Hebron oilfield, about 350km off the coast of St John’s, the NL capital, by late 2017.

Regional energy and resources are being studied via growing research links between NL and other Arctic institutions. For example, Memorial University, in St John’s, recently hosted a series of seminars as part of the Pan-Arctic PhD Programme in Extractive Industries doctoral courses, a component of the University of the Arctic’s Extractive Industries Thematic Network.

With all of this activity underway, Newfoundland has joined the ranks of the ‘near Arctic regions’ that are increasingly tied to the fate of the Arctic itself.

The author is a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) in Oslo.

Originally published by The Arctic Journal. Re-published here with the permission of the author.

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