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Local Economy

Could Whitehorse Become the Singapore of the North?

A global affairs writer has urged Canada to recruit 10 million Arctic inhabitants.

Crawford Kilian 28 Jul 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is contributing editor of The Tyee.

Writing in Policy Options, Irvin Studin recently argued for a Very Big Idea: developing Canada’s North as the centre of a new Arctic trade alliance.

“Whitehorse,” Studin writes, “is actually closer to Beijing than is Sydney, Australia. So too are Yellowknife and Inuvik. In other words, Canada is more 'in Asia’ — through our North — than our Australian brethren. (Inuvik and Iqaluit, for their parts, are both much closer to Murmansk than Manchester is to Moscow, and Yellowknife is closer to Oslo and Stockholm than is Montreal.)”

He envisions “intense transpolar air transport” between the cities of the North and the major cities of Russia, China and Europe, plus ships crossing the Arctic Sea. This system would be supported by vast infrastructure projects that by 2100 would link 70 million of us in Canada’s south with another 20 million in the “middle swath” — the northern halves of most provinces — and 10 million more living well north of the 60th parallel.

In time, dreams Studin, “Whitehorse becomes the Singapore of the Arctic.”

I recall reading a similar prediction of 100 million Canadians in a Canadian novel written over a century ago, and some of us will remember John Diefenbaker’s “Northern Vision,” a plan to develop the North to better extract its resources. That was over 60 years ago, yet most of us still live within 100 kilometres of the U.S. border, and far more Canadians are familiar with northern Europe than with their own northern backyard.

Still, the Northern Vision has its attractions. Stockholm and Helsinki are on about the same latitude as Atlin, B.C., which is just south of the Yukon border. The Finnish city of Oulu, on the Arctic Circle, has a population of over 200,000 and a high-tech university with 13,000 students. Why couldn’t we have such big, sophisticated cities in our own North?

Studin argues that “climate change and the resulting melting of permafrost and sea ice” are opening the North whether we like it or not; major development could, he believes, advance both environmental interests and the quality of life for Inuit, Indigenous peoples and other northern residents. We could also lead an “Arctic League,” an idea that would inspire discreet mirth from Oslo to St. Petersburg.

But climate change is just one reason why Studin’s vision is a fantasy. Melting permafrost changes the surface of the North almost from day to day. Existing settlements (and “drunken forests”) are tilting and sagging as the ice beneath them turns to mud. Highways and railways would be perpetually broken as the terrain beneath them shifted and sagged. Ever-warmer summers would turn vast stretches of tundra into swamps supporting trillions of mosquitos and little else.

Whitehorse on the Yukon River. Studin’s northern vision involves lots of emissions-causing air transport. What these jets would transport is unclear: Yukon Gold potatoes? Photo: Wikimedia.

Siberia gives us a preview of our own northern future. Methane leaking (or exploding) out of the permafrost creates enormous craters. Imagine such a crater forming under King Point, Yukon, where Studin envisages a deepwater port.

Siberia’s current heat wave offers another sobering parallel. In June, Verkhoyansk, north of the Arctic Circle, recorded a high of 100 F — 38 C. Unsurprisingly, Siberia’s vast forests have also been burning, ensuring long-term harm to Siberians’ lungs. About the only upside for climate change in Siberia is a new industry: retrieving frozen mammoth carcasses from melting permafrost.

Studin’s northern vision involves lots of air transport, which means still more emissions in the very region that’s warming fastest. What these jets would transport is unclear: Yukon potatoes? Asian and Russian tourists? Gold nugget pendants? Perhaps, if Iqaluit gets big enough to develop industries and commuter suburbs, its products could be exported in airships that could cope with unpredictable weather at all times of the year. But it doesn’t seem enough to keep 100 million Canadians prospering into the 22nd century.

And suppose we were to adopt an immigration policy that welcomed millions of immigrants to occupy the North. That would require some interesting negotiations between Ottawa and the Inuit and Indigenous peoples, who would have to agree to become about one per cent of the population on their own lands.

Still, one thing Studin accurately senses is that Canada could, if it wanted, be a magnet for tens of millions more immigrants in the coming decades. His far-fetched piece serves a purpose if it merely gets us thinking about how we are going to respond to the aspirations of growing numbers of climate refugees. Expect them to continue to be the subsistence-farming peoples of the sub-Sahara, Central America and Haiti, countries where climate change is no longer spoken of in the future tense.

Farmers from Guatemala or Mali would highly motivated to adapt to conditions in a warming Canada. Haitians have worked under brutal conditions for centuries; Mayans have been here for millennia. Rejecting them wholesale would be as self-defeating as our racist grandparents were when they turned away the Jews fleeing Hitler.

Migrants are people prepared not only to change, but to suffer and die for the chance of a better life — if not for themselves, then for their children. Most Canadians today are the children of such immigrants, and we will owe our ancestors an apology if they suffered and died only to give us the chance to screw up on a global scale.

We could redeem ourselves by recruiting and welcoming new immigrants, not like the Chinese we hired to die building our railways, but as partners in rescuing what we can of this part of the earth.

Here’s our situation, we could tell them. It’s going to get worse. Help us understand this mess we made, work with us, and maybe we, or our kids, can salvage something.

Just don’t expect your kids to be stuck in rush-hour traffic in 2100, trying to make their flight from Iqaluit International to Stockholm.  [Tyee]

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