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Grappling With Low Living Standards in Canada’s North

From internet speeds to graduation rates, Canada’s northern regions lag behind the rest of the country. In her new report, Mary Simon, the Canadian government’s special adviser on Arctic issues, presents some ideas about how to close those gaps.

Written by Peter Varga Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Mary Simon recently served as a special representative to Canada’s minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs on Arctic issues.Photo Courtesy Mary Simon

When Canada’s government appointed Mary Simon as a special representative to the minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, it put an emphasis on environmental conservation. But as Simon spent half a year crisscrossing Canada’s vast North to meet with leaders of three territorial governments, regional leaders in northern Quebec and Labrador, Indigenous groups and community representatives, she found that northern residents had other concerns at the front of their minds.

From the outset, Simon heard the same concerns that have dogged the Arctic for many decades. Indigenous northerners “are asking to close the gaps that exist in almost everything we have in our communities,” she said, referring to education standards, infrastructure, health and social services, which all lag far behind the rest of the country.

These issues are all familiar to Simon; over the past four decades she has served as a leader and representative of several Inuit and Indigenous organizations in northern Quebec and Canada.

Simon’s mission wrapped up when she submitted her report to the government at the end of March. The 36-page document answers the government’s call on conservation of the Arctic’s natural environment with the recommendation to establish “Indigenous Protected Areas,” to be administered and reserved for use by Indigenous groups. But more importantly, said Simon, the report urges the Canadian government to close gaps in living standards between Canada’s Arctic and the rest of the country.


Arctic Deeply talked to Simon about her recommendations – which include making access to broadband internet an infrastructure priority and moving ahead with the creation of an Arctic-based university – and how they would to improve the lives of Arctic peoples.

News Deeply: What has caused the gap in the quality of life between Canada’s Arctic and the rest of the country?

Mary Simon: What I heard in many of my discussions is people asking the government to deal with basic infrastructure gaps in the North – improvement in education standards, or example. There’s two issues: One is the number of students that are getting out of school; then the standard of education and the lack of curriculum development that has been there for a long time – for instance, freedom to be able to teach in our mother tongue, Inuktitut (in Nunavut and neighbouring Inuit regions).

There’s dealing with food security, dealing with the impact of climate change. For instance, because Canada is considered a wealthy country and a developed country in the international arena, and even though we’ve lobbied to have the country’s support in terms of adaptation strategies and resources, we haven’t been able to get that. It’s like we’re a developing region of a developed country.

We’ve always looked at the Arctic as being remote, and that’s true. It’s always been seen more as a marginal and sparsely populated region of Canada. But remoteness doesn’t mean you have to lack in all your services.

News Deeply: Why is it so important to improve education systems in the Arctic?

Simon: Education is the cornerstone of healthy, educated and involved individuals living in their communities. The youth are looking at education very differently than they were 40, 50 years ago. They want not just a better education system but a standard of education that will allow them to continue their education if they so choose, whether it’s in skills training or on the academic side.

News Deeply: Your report makes little direct reference to the development of natural resources such as mining, oil and gas, commercial fisheries and sealing. Why is that?

Simon: One of the reasons is that it hardly came up at all – people were very focused on the issues that I put in my report. This area was not something that was discussed in any great detail. I didn’t make a deliberate act to exclude it.

But when people talk about sustainable economic development, it includes resource development. I couldn’t say in the report “people don’t want development,” because it’s not their general position.

Any kind of project has to go through an environmental review process. It has to get licensing. There are such huge processes that need to be gone through when you look at resource development that it was hard for me to say, generally speaking, everybody supports resource development, because it could be that some people don’t support certain development.

So it was an area that was difficult to put in any great detail. But to me it was included in what northerners said about having healthy, well-educated people with jobs, and part of the jobs that come into our communities are from resource development. I felt this was included in the discussions that were happening, but people didn’t raise it as a very specific issue.

News Deeply: Why does there need to be an Arctic-based university?

Simon: Northerners are able to go south and go to university if they really want to, but it’s not the same as having a post-secondary kind of community within your own region. And to me, that just kind of sets up a place where education becomes even more important to the Inuit, to the First Nations and to the Metis.

But in this case, I was talking more about the Eastern Arctic, because First Nations have the University of Manitoba (which hosts a Department of Native Studies), and we have Yukon College, which is moving towards getting university status.

Universities which are northern will be able to collaborate between themselves, and they’ll be able to enhance their programming and sustain funding even more by bridging those gaps with institutions that are bigger. I’m not talking about something huge that’s going to take over all the colleges. I think colleges have a role to play in all of this.

News Deeply: Why is broadband access so important for infrastructure in the Arctic?

Simon: I have first-hand experience of trying to work from the North. It’s very difficult. If we got rid of the digital divide, if we look at health – telehealth (linking patients with health specialists via teleconferencing) – with the mental health crisis that’s going on right now? That’s why the suicide rate is so high. I always say suicide is not an illness, it’s a symptom of an illness. You can have psychiatrists videoconferencing with someone every week, so somebody that is ill could be seeing a doctor once a week instead of once or twice a year. That would be quite phenomenal. It could happen if we could get rid of the digital divide.

The same goes for education. If we got rid of the digital divide, (students) could do that online and they could do it through video-conferencing.

Also, people want to develop small businesses. If they were able to do that online, it would be a lot easier.

News Deeply: How do you hope your report will improve the situation?

Simon: It’s up to all the governments, the territorial leaders and the land claims organizations to work with the federal government to see how they’re going to deal with the recommendations.

The reaction has been very positive from the North and the land claims organizations, so I would assume these recommendations will be discussed. I’m hoping that we will hear about them and that they will be implemented.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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