Mining in the North: What is the North?

Trent Ernst, Editor

A recent study from the Conference Board of Canada says that mining output in Northern Canada is expected to nearly double between now at 2020.

But what is Northern Canada? It turns out that question is not as easy to answer as one might first expect.

Ask someone in Vancouver what is north, and they’ll probably tell you that any place north of Hope or Whistler is the arctic wastelands. Ask the same question to someone who lives in Tuktoyaktuk, and they’ll tell you about those soft southerners down in Yellowknife.

The report says that it uses Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey to define what a Northerner is, but that document is of little help.

So we turned to Anja Jeffrey. Jeffrey is the Director of the Centre for the North, a think-tank that is an initiative of the conference board of Canada whose entire mission it is to research and study the north and examine national issues from a northern perspective.

“The north is a mindset more than a boundary,” says Jeffery. “At least, this is what I’ve found in my travels across Canada’s north. It’s defined by the people who consider themselves to live in the north.”

Jeffrey says that a boundary must be drawn, but any boundary that is drawn will always be arbitrary, depending on who you ask “There’s north of 60, there’s the sub-arctic. Where the north really begins and where it really ends is a matter of definition. If I speak to someone who lives in the territories, anything south of 60 isn’t the north. The whole perspective of the north shifts when you move into the north part of a province.”

The 60th parallel is a circle of latitude 60 degrees north of the equator. While it is often defined as the start of the land of the midnight sun, the sun shines there 18 hours and 52 minutes on the longest day of the year. The shortest day of the year is 5 hours, 52 minutes. It also defines the boundary for the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

However, Jeffery says that this is not the north as defined in the document. Yes, people who live in the territories are northerners, but so are the people who live in the northern portions of most of Canada’s provinces.

“The north is a place, but it’s also an idea. It’s usually characterized by communities that are more remote, that don’t have the same infrastructure, in terms of transportation and connectivity.”

Jeffery says that this remoteness creates an economic fragility, and communities are often built around a single industry. “These northern communities can fall victim to a boom and bust cycle. That’s a characteristic of remote communities.”

By that definition, perhaps the southern dwellers are right. Jeffery points out that most of Canada’s population lives within 200 km of the US border, and many communities not much farther north than that have seen boom and bust cycles over the last few decades.

According to an article on the Centre For the North’s website, 83 percent of the land mass of Canada is considered “North”. This is more pronounced in the East, where fully 88 percent of Ontario is considered north, including the entire western half of the province starting at the US border. In British Columbia, 73 percent of the province is considered “North”.

Eight percent of the population lives in this area, which, for the purposes of the survey, is considered anything north of Highway 16.

She says that the north is a self-defining idea. “The people who don’t live within 200 km of the border are scattered. Many definitely consider themselves north. It gets really complicated. You see past that and you just accept it for what it is. It’s very amusing when I show that map of what the north is to people in the far north, and they say ‘that’s not north.’”

But Northerners live in all three territories and seven of Canada’s ten provinces, and these are the people that the Centre for the North is seeking to define. (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and PEI are all considered to be completely in the south.)

“At the Centre for the North we are trying to come up with a comprehensive picture of what happens in Canada’s north,” says Jeffery. “If you are one of these jurisdictions, you only look out to yourself. BC and Laborador won’t typically work together or be aware of what’s happening in each other’s jurisdiction. What we provide is a comparative study of what’s happening in the north nationally.”

She says the Centre asks what’s going on in the north, that we can learn from in the south? “We are trying to pull the country together by understanding the north.