Wrap Up Special: Learning the Arctic through COVID-19

The summer is almost at an end, and there’s only one thing left to do about it: reflect. Bear with me here.

My introduction to the Canadian Arctic has been almost entirely through the lens of COVID-19. In fact, it was cancellations from the pandemic that caused me to remain in place and focus on something that so many Canadians do not: urgent issues left unaddressed in our own Northern backyard. I could not be more grateful for the redirection.

As a long-time resident of the Greater Toronto Area, I have learned quickly that my ignorance of the critical infrastructure gaps in the North is something enabled entirely by a deep privilege in location and heritage. I had never thought twice about the source of my food, until March found me pre-lockdown panic shopping, unsure if food items in the store would still be available the next week. That’ll change your perspective quickly.

After spending my summer speaking to Northerners, I can clearly see the desperate need for broadband internet, roads, affordable food, affordable housing – just about everything we take for granted in the South. There is an unmistakable humanitarian argument for an increased investment strategy in the North. But this vast, beautiful region of our country could also play a critical role in Canada’s overall recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Through the interviews I conducted with political, Indigenous, and corporate leaders from the North I learned that, with the right amount of imagination, this could be possible.

As much as the world has changed over the course of the summer, the Arctic has changed more, with record-breaking temperatures and glaciers that have irrevocably disappeared. The future of the planet may hinge on the policies we enact in our attempt to recover from COVID-19, and we may have one shot to get this right. And, at the same time, so much in Canada’s Arctic has remained the same. Food insecurity, insufficient housing, the inability for school children to access the Internet – all of those issues predate the COVID-19 pandemic and remain today.

After an uncertain Spring and Summer, Canada has the opportunity to begin economic recovery after temporarily beating the virus back. That recovery could come from the resource-rich Arctic, where Northerners, particularly Indigenous Canadians have rights and ownership over the lands and resources which were once almost forcibly lost to them. There is wealth in the Arctic that could be used to generate a greener economy, a more livable landscape for locals, and a more equitable country where geography shouldn’t determine your access to essential items. But it needs to be executed properly, with equal care for a rapidly shifting environment. Who better to understand that than the Indigenous caretakers of this stolen land?

Three months ago, I started this series as a way to learn from experts across the field, knowing full-well that I was not one myself. The intent was to hear people from all walks of life, and understand the experiences behind their beliefs and livelihoods, even if we didn’t quite see eye-to-eye on policy.

What I did not expect was for the pandemic to start fading out entirely from the conversation as time went on. The early entries in June are focused on the impacts of COVID-19, our shared experiences in the chaos of Spring, and our methods of adapting to new circumstances. But by August, our conversations returned again and again to a basic premise: the fault lines in the Canadian North were created long before the COVID 19 crisis, and there is an urgent need to find a new way forward.

At the outset of the pandemic, Northerners demonstrated remarkable leadership in containing the spread of the virus whose outbreak would have been catastrophic. There is a recognition now that the pandemic could be used as an opportunity to finally make good on decades of vague promises on the potential of the Canadian North, to create a region that is both strong at home, and a leader abroad.

Northerners, I have learned, are forward facing people. In spite of every reason to be cynical, bitter, and hopeless, there is an innate determination to carry on crafting a better future. It is a mindset that we will all have to learn from, as we’re inevitably changed from living through this moment in history. My life will be different after COVID-19. The world will be different, and I hope that the state of the North will too be different. We have each other’s voices to learn from, but this new future remains uncharted.

To plot this new course, I would bet on Northerners any day of the week.

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