Northern Inroads
The Walrus|January/February 2021
While Canada ignores the Arctic’s economic potential, China is poised to invest
GLORIA DICKIE

THE VAST mineral deposits of zinc and copper near IZOKLake, in the Northwest Territories, lay glittering but ultimately un­ touchable until August 2019, when trans­ port minister Marc Garneau pledged $21.5 million in federal funding toward the first phase of development for the Grays Bay Road and Port Project, a trans­ portation network designed to cash in on the opening of the Arctic. This money would add to the $40 million allocated to building a series of roads across the Nunavut– Northwest Territories border, which will help connect IZOKLake to the deepwater port at Nunavut’s Grays Bay, located along the increasingly ice­free Northwest Passage sea route that leads to Asia.

In 2011, MMG Limited, a multinational mining corporation, expressed interest in building a road to open up some of the Arctic’s remote but lucrative min­ ERALreserves. Standing to benefit most from this would be the corporation’s pri­ mary shareholder: the Chinese govern­ment. The tremendous cost of the road and port, however, ultimately made the project economically unviable for MMG, which halted further development, in 2013, in hopes that Canada would pick up the shovel. “On behalf of MMG, I would like to extend my sincere thanks to the Canadian government for their support and funding,” CEO Geoffrey Gao said in a press release following Garneau’s pledge. “Road and port access is the key to unlocking the IZOKCorridor.”

For Stanley Anablak, president of the Kitikmeot Inuit Association, an organ­ization that represents Inuit in western Nunavut, it mattered not whether in­ vestment came from Canada or from abroad. Investment had been held back largely by a limited backbone infra­ structure in the territories. More roads and ports, better broadband networks and transmission lines, and even rail­ ways, Anablak notes, could change that.

“Without this project, we will continue to be dependent on the [few] mines that can operate completely independent of regional infrastructure,” he wrote in an email. “We want to be more self­ sufficient. We need to be in charge of our own destiny.”

With the entire transportation net­ work project bearing a $1.6 billion price tag, the $61.5 million in Can­adian funding seemed a drop in the bucket, but it is what that money rep­ resents that concerns Michael Byers, a Canada Research Chair in global pol­itics and international law at the Uni­versity of British Columbia who has monitored the development for years.

“I don’t see a need for us to be subsid­izing Chinese investments in the Can­adian Arctic,” he says. He believes economic benefits to Inuit commun­ities are oversold. “[The road] has one purpose, which is to support mineral development in the region . . . and the primary commercial beneficiary will be a Chinese company.”

There is growing concern that China’s influence in the North could threaten Canada’s autonomy in the region and put politicians in uncomfortable situa­tions as they weigh national regulations with foreign­ policy strategies. Canada has spent decades ignoring its Arctic potential and, as a result, the region’s economy lags far behind that of most other northern regions around the world. Evidently, the Canadian Arctic has not proved such a blind spot for China.

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