GENUIS: Canada's far north offers both great wisdom and potential

MP Garnett Genuis reflects on his recent trip to Canada's Territories touching on both the role of traditional knowledge and the economic potential of the north.

Garnett Genuis Sherwood Park Alberta

I am starting to write this piece from ?Kugluktuk – a town on the shore of the Arctic Ocean and the westernmost community in the territory of Nunavut. I'm here as part of a foreign affairs committee trip to multiple stops in the far north, studying how Canada exercises its sovereignty in this region. The committee will produce a detailed report on the sovereignty issue, but here are a few disparate reflections in the meantime on the Arctic itself - not the politics, but the land and the people. ?Unfortunately, the north is far too expensive. I believe that every Canadian should see it, needs to see it. But a person could go to Europe and back at least once for the price of a three hour one-way trip to Iqaluit, Nunavut's capital. Going on from there is substantially more expensive and most things you need are a lot more expensive once you get up here as well. In terms of flight costs, it's a bit of a "chicken and egg" thing - more people would come if it was less expensive, and it would be less expensive if there was more demand.

Why should every Canadian visit the north?

The combination of factors associated with being in a particular place has an effect on a person. The effect of places can make us more or less attuned to certain ideas - personal, political?, philosophical, and spiritual. The silence, the sharp cold, the vast nothingness, and the breathtaking beauty of the high arctic are (in my experience) the best place on earth for contemplation. If you ever need to be reminded that the world is bigger than your problems, come here. And if I am ever in charge of convening peace-talks in order to resolve some intractable conflict, I will suggest the Canadian Arctic as the ideal venue for the discussion.

Economic development in the north

Helping more Canadians experience the arctic requires economic development in the north. More meaningful personal engagement with the region requires more flights, more hotel rooms, more jobs, and a sustainable private-sector economy. For long-term inhabitants, contemplation does not put food on the table. Much has been said about how development and project approval moves too slowly and is too unpredictable in Canada. This again became evident in conversations with northerners. It is frustrating to hear their stories – for instance, of communities sitting on massive quantities of energy resources, who are nonetheless paying exorbitant prices to bring in fuel from elsewhere. Much more work is needed in this area. When it happens, a lot of new development in remote areas and in the north now seems to happen on a fly-in fly-out basis. Rather than building and growing permanent communities, many people in various sectors leave their families in the south and fly back and forth. This is understandable at an individual level, but is socially sub-optimal. People who settle permanently with their families would create spin-off opportunities by spending locally, and help to build durable communities to which more, in turn, would want to come. Fly-in fly-out is also hard on family life. Much of the development of our country as it is would not have happened if resources were exploited on a fly-in fly-out basis. One person I spoke to on this trip suggested that we facilitate private sector development building permanent community, by incentivizing companies to support permanent housing for workers and their families in remote areas. Another suggestion was that governments and private sector employers explore ways to support the hiring of spouses of existing employees (ideally on a flexible basis), in order to facilitate family relocation. These steps, along with other more conventional incentives around economic development, could help to grow the north and make it the sort of place to which more people can come.

Learning from and listening to indigenous peoples

Over 85% of the population of Nunavut is Inuit. Nunavut and the Northwest Territories are defined by an ongoing indigenous-majority experience which shapes the culture and politics of the region. This is another reason why more Canadians should come to visit and learn. When it comes to our relationship with Canadian indigenous peoples, it is critically important to let indigenous peoples speak for themselves and to listen to what they have to say (while also not presuming that they all think the same way). That would seem fairly obvious, but it is important to underline. The Inuit leaders who we have met want to preserve their dynamic cultural traditions, be part of more economic development, see a greater valorization of and support for hunting, and see us fight back against international efforts to vilify the products that come from their labour (for example, the EU ban on seal products). In Cambridge Bay I ate Muktuk, made of Narwhal blubber. It was delicious. Inuit believe in the critical importance of family and in the veneration of elders. Inuit and other indigenous cultures have so much to teach us. I recently had a discussion with an indigenous person I know about the legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide. He asked the question: What are the implications and lessons taught to young people when an older person commits suicide? I was so struck by this, because it put the question in communal as opposed to individualistic terms. Contrast this with virtually all of the parliamentary debate about this issue on both sides, which was highly individualistic in its approach, with the main questions concerning how we understand individual autonomy, individual dignity, and the risks to vulnerable individuals. We need to listen to indigenous peoples when it comes to economic development. During this trip, Inuit leaders have expressed frustration with anti-development policies imposed from Ottawa without consultation. Some left-of-centre politicians trumpet the idea that every indigenous community should be able to veto development, while at the same time they impose development bans and moratoriums without any consultation whatsoever. If your goal is to engage indigenous people in decision making, then you ought to recognize that many indigenous people want to see the development of resources that will allow them to work and prosper.

The role of indigenous traditional knowledge

A corollary of listening to Inuit people is respecting their traditional knowledge of the Arctic and seeking to build bridges between traditional and empirical ways of knowing. When put in those terms, it might seem abstract, but here is a simple example. We might know scientifically to avoid eating a particular thing because we have tested it to know that it has certain harmful properties. Or, we might know to avoid eating that thing because at some point in our family history people ate it and got very sick. As a matter of tradition, our ancestors in conjunction with others had learned to avoid that food - even if they would not be able to explain the precise mechanism which led to that food causing a problem. Both the empirical and the traditional are legitimate ways of knowing, and both can sometimes get things wrong. The need to consider indigenous traditional knowledge - the particular traditional knowledge developed by indigenous peoples about this land, among other things - is now relatively well recognized, at least in official discourse. The value of traditional knowledge has been made particularly evident to me in various conversations we have had up here. The role of traditional knowledge seems to be understood and appreciated by the scientific community operating up here.

Western society's view of traditional knowledge

At the same time, these conversations provoked me to wonder why many western societies are so quick to dismiss their own traditional knowledge, even while accepting the value of such knowledge in the indigenous context. The idea that parents are the primary educators of their children, that ?human dignity is universal and immutable, that good societies are characterized by ordered liberty rooted in a shared conception of the common good, that people ought to live in accordance with the cardinal virtues - prudence, justice, courage and temperance, that productive work is essential for well being, that human rights are universal and stem from natural law - all of these and much more are part of the traditional knowledge of our civilization. Unlike traditional knowledge in the scientific domain, traditional knowledge in the domain of politics and morality cannot be put under a microscope - but perhaps that makes the contributions of traditional knowledge in these areas that much more important. So much of our contemporary discourse outside of the indigenous context is predicated on the rejection of traditional knowledge, change for its own sake, and the demand that traditions immediately justify their existence with evidence in order to survive. Their durability and usefulness is rarely considered sufficient evidence. I would suggest that, while increasing in engagement with indigenous traditional knowledge, we also explore western culture's traditional knowledge. While looking out the window and taking it all in, there is so much to think about up here. Don't believe me? Come north, and see for yourself.

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