Canada

Facts & Figures

AC member since 1996

Coordinates Ottawa,ON:
45.4215° N, 75.6972° W
Whitehorse, YT:
60.7212° N, 135.0568° W
Yellowknife, NT:
62.4540° N, 114.3718° W
Iqaluit, NU:
63.7467° N, 68.5170° W

Population Canada: 35.16 million
Northern Territories: 105,000

Land Area Canada: 9.985 million km2
Northern Territories: 3.921 million km2

Defining Canada’s Arctic is not an easy task. Maps published by the Canadian government show a boundary that sneaks along the 60th parallel north, dives abruptly south along the banks of the Hudson Bay, and that cuts back onto land as it crosses northern Quebec and Labrador. This massive swath of land represents over 40% of Canada’s landmass and 25% of the global Arctic. This size encompasses a surprising geographic diversity, ranging from the Innuitian Region of the High Arctic to the rocky Canadian Shield in Nunavut to the low lying tundra of the Arctic coastal plains. Broadly speaking, it can be divided into two zones: the Arctic and the subarctic. The former is characterized by permafrost, Arctic tundra and polar deserts at high latitudes; while the latter lies to the south of the treeline and consists of boreal forests. While temperatures inevitable range across such a large area, Canada’s North is generally characterized by frigid winters, with averages ranging from -20 °C to -35 °C, and relatively mild summers ranging from 10 °C to 25 °C.

Despite the fact that both biodiversity and communities in Canada’s North are threatened by climate change, the government’s history on environmental issues is a checkered one. Over the last decade Canada’s federal government pulled out of the Kyoto accord, cut funding to research programs, reduced climate change goals and promoted the development of Alberta’s oil sands. Canadian negotiators have even been accused of stalling climate talks internationally. This stands in stark contrast to progressive initiatives undertaken by several provinces – notably B.C. and Québec – that have developed carbon tax initiatives, emphasized green energy and even signed agreements with U.S. states without the federal government. Building on these successes, a change in governments at both the federal and provincial levels seems to have ushered in a more serious commitment to tackling environmental issues. This recently culminated in a previously unimaginable delegation to the COP21 conference that comprised high level representation from the provincial, territorial and federal levels.

Politically Canada’s Arctic encompasses the three northern territories – Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut – as well as the northern portions of Quebec (Nunavik) and Labrador (Nunatsiavut). Sparsely populated compared to the rest of the country, the region is home to just over 100,000 Canadians representing 0.28% of the total population. Whitehorse (23,276) and Yellowknife (19,234), the capitals of Yukon and the Northwest Territories respectively, are the two largest cities in the region. Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, is the third largest with a population of 6,254. To give a sense of scale, a majority of Canadians live in a thin line straddling the country’s southern border and are concentrated in the three largest metropolitan areas: Toronto (6.05 million), Montreal (4.01 million) and Vancouver (2.46 million).

Inhabiting the North long before the first European explorers arrived, over half of the population of Canada’s territories identifies as Aboriginal (85% in Nunavut, 50% in the Northwest Territories and 25% in Yukon). Inuit Nunangat – stretching from Alaska in the West to Greenland in the East – is today home to roughly three quarters of all members of the eight main Inuit groups in Canada. Further south, the Subarctic is home to a diversity of First Nations groups whose traditional homelands are now often part of several different provinces and territories. For example, Denendeh, the homeland of the Dene Nation, stretches from Alaska to Nunavut and south into the prairies.

In addition to the harsh climate, Canada’s North faces significant social and health challenges, including housing, water quality and unemployment among others. These issues are exacerbated by the difficulty of providing services to the many small, remote communities in the North. Educational attainment is lower than in southern Canada whereas rates of substance abuse and domestic violence tend to be higher on average. Mental health issues are a serious concern, with high levels of suicide – in particular among youth. Physical health outcomes are also lower than the rest of Canada. This is particularly true of Indigenous communities, which suffer from higher infant mortality rates, lower life expectancies and higher rates of chronic illnesses and infectious diseases than the Canadian average.

Indigenous communities across the north (and Canada as a whole) also suffered—and continue to suffer—at the hands of colonial policies such as the residential school system in place throughout much of the 20th century. The negative, inter-generational legacy of colonialism cannot be understated. Closing the service gaps between between the territories and the rest of Canada, as well as productively addressing the legacy of colonialism, remain pressing issues.

Alongside health and social issues, economic development dominates discussion in the North. Rich in resources ranging from oil and gas to fish and diamonds, the exploitation of these resources is seen by some as a solution to the high levels of unemployment in the North and a path to a higher quality of life. Today mining (diamonds, gold, silver, lead, zinc), the public sector (government, social and health services), and the service industry (including tourism), are the three main sources of employment in Canada’s Arctic. Despite flirting with the idea of oil and gas extraction in the region, commercial exploitation has been slow to materialize due to a lack of infrastructure, environmental concerns, conflicting stakeholder interests and, more recently, the low price of oil. The Norman Wells field in the Northwest Territories remains the only producing oil well in Canada’s Arctic.

Another important sector is that of traditional or subsistence economies. These activities are woven into the cultural fabric of many Indigenous communities and continue to play an important role in providing for their livelihoods. Although this aspect of the northern economy is often overlooked by traditional economic studies, Statistics Canada estimates that roughly $40 million dollars of country (traditional) food is produced each year. The importance of these traditional economies resonates at the international level, as evidenced by the dispute between Canada and the EU over the latter’s ban on the trade of seal derived products. Concerns remain as to the impact of large scale extractive projects on these traditional activities.

Intimately linked to issues of sovereignty and identity, resource development in Canada’s North has long been a priority. Beginning with the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush and continuing throughout the World Wars, Diefenbaker’s drive for development during the 1950s, and the rise of opencast mining in the 1960s, resource development in Canada’s North has been one-part economic development and one-part nation building. Given the low prices of raw materials, the high costs of operation in Canada’s Arctic, a lack of infrastructure, and growing concerns over the environmental impact of these industries, most projects in the works have been put on indefinite hold. The implications of this are felt across many northern communities reliant on extractive industries for employment opportunities. Striking a balance between economic development and a multifaceted approach to sustainability, on the terms set by northern stakeholders, will be one of the key challenges going forward.

The governance of Canada’s Arctic is another important factor in understanding the many dynamics at play in the region. There is a clear constitutional divide between the provinces and territories, with the territories historically being governed by federal officials. This has gradually changed over the past 40 years as federal statutes have established legislative assemblies and executive councils for each territory. Furthermore, the federal government is transferring or “devolving” powers to the territories so that they enjoy mandates similar to the provinces. This process  is currently the most advanced in Yukon. Of note, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Nunatsiavut practice consensus government—a form of consensus democracy where the legislature is entirely composed of independents who select the premier and cabinet members from amongst themselves. Some Aboriginal land claims have also culminated with the creation of limited forms of self-government, for example the Inuvialuit Final Agreement in the Northwest Territories that created the Western Arctic Regional Municipality.

Canada is also actively involved in Arctic governance at the international level. A founding member of the Arctic Council, Canada recently finished its second chairmanship in 2015 during which it promoted economic development and founded the Arctic Economic Council. Echoing the other Arctic countries, and despite strong rhetoric in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, Canada’s Arctic policies have emphasized cooperation in the region. Several outstanding disputes remain; however, between Canada and Greenland (Denmark) over Hans Island and Canada and the USA in the Beaufort Sea. Canada’s interpretation of the Northwest Passage as internal waters and their claim to the North Pole are also contentious. Despite these issues, the likelihood of any form of conflict breaking out is practically nonexistent.

Canada is party to the Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement and the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution, Preparedness and Response in the Arctic, both negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council. Furthermore, Canada is one of the Arctic 5 countries and hosted a meeting in Chelsea in 2010. More recently they signed the Declaration Concerning the Prevention of Unregulated High Seas Fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean.

Canada’s Arctic strategy took on a particularly hawkish tone over the last decade under two consecutive Conservative governments headed up by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Espousing strong and at times bellicose rhetoric, the Harper government sought to claim the North as fundamentally Canadian and, some would argue, set the stage for a militarisation of the region. After years of delays, controversy and budget overruns, major plans were unveiled in 2015 to move ahead with military acquisitions. Even if these acquisitions do materialize, which is not a certainty in light of the large gulf between action and rhetoric in the past, Canada’s capacity in the North will still be limited at best. Perhaps the most tangible legacy of a decade of Conservative governance is that the Arctic now commands an important presence in Canadian politics and in the Canadian psyche.

Changes in Canada’s Arctic policy may be on the horizon, however, with a new Liberal government finding its feet in Ottawa. The Arctic did not figure strongly in Trudeau’s election platform and not much has materialised since. That being said, the Liberals will be keen to distinguish themselves from the former Conservative government which, at a more general level, will likely translate into reinvigorated multilateralism, a serious commitment to climate change and a redefined relationship between the federal government and Aboriginals – all of which will reverberate in Canada’s Arctic.

Perhaps most importantly, the new government needs to abandon the nationalistic and militaristic Arctic narrative driven by the political interests of the Harper government. Not only does this narrative clash with the realities of the Arctic, it privileges an Arctic identity created by southern Canadians, for southern Canadians, all the while marginalizing northern voices. Canada’s Arctic policy should instead focus on empowering northerners to create their own narrative. It remains to be seen, however, whether or not the new Prime Minister will manage to break out of the mold cast by Harper’s Arctic vision.

The Arctic Council and Canada:

Policy Statements:

Ministries with Arctic Agendas: