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Northern conference hopes to help drive future transportation policy

YELLOWKNIFE, N.W.T. – An October transportation conference in Yellowknife saw business, community and government folk converge to discuss ways in which Canada’s northern transportation policy can be moved forward through the 21st...

YELLOWKNIFE, N.W.T. – An October transportation conference in Yellowknife saw business, community and government folk converge to discuss ways in which Canada’s northern transportation policy can be moved forward through the 21st century.

Organized by the Van Horne Institute, a University of Calgary affiliate tasked with developing post-secondary programs and public policy research in advanced supply chain and logistics, the conference not only shone a spotlight on northern transportation issues, it presented them in the context of the overall view of transportation in western North America. A smaller picture viewed in terms of the big picture, as it were.

“What we were attempting to do is follow up on work already done in what’s called ‘the rest of Canada’,” said Peter Wallis, the Van Horne Institute’s president and CEO, noting that the idea is to help guide Canadian transportation policy going forward, especially since a major policy review is on tap for the not-too-distant future.

“The year 2000 was the last year the government of Canada actually had a fundamental review of its transportation policy, looking at all the legislation that is under federal jurisdiction,” Wallis said, referring to a blue ribbon panel that crossed the country back then, holding hearings and developing research papers to advise Ottawa as to what was and wasn’t working as far as its transportation policy was concerned.

But Y2K was a very long time ago, especially considering the growth Canada has experienced since then. “Policy’s not static,” Wallis said, “and when you have a fundamental review, you look at it from top to bottom.”

And with the next fundamental review scheduled for 2015, “maybe it’s time for the government to perhaps early up its mandated review of its legislation and also to reflect on the fact that it’s not just the federal government that has jurisdiction over transportation but also the provinces and the municipalities,” Wallis said.

In other words, while the federal government may be the big frog in the pond, it certainly isn’t the only one and perhaps it should be taking the smaller frogs’ issues into account when it creates policy that will affect them. This is especially important to the north, which has special issues brought about by vast areas of difficult to access land, harsh climate, and sparse population.

Wallis said the Yellowknife conference was designed to “take the southern fundamental review process to the north, recognizing that an efficient and effective transportation system is the lifeblood of the economy.”

And to make it as relevant as possible to the region, the Institute consulted with the region when developing the conference’s themes.

“We gave them this overarching premise about reviewing Canada’s transportation policy,” he said, “but the modules and who should come and speak and who should basically participate was very much driven by a group of the northern planners.”

The program included a panel session that delved into the relationship between transportation policy and natural resources. Chaired by Matthew Spence, director general at the Northern Project Management Office of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency (CanNor), it noted – among other things – that the mining sector is growing briskly, fuelled by expansion in the Chinese market and presumed growth in the US.

All isn’t sweetness and light, though. According to a presentation by Kirk Cameron of the Colorado-based consulting firm CH2M HILL, growth in the Yukon has been challenged by “two recent successful challenges by First Nations without modern Land Claims Agreements” which have had a significant impact on resource development there.

Cameron also noted that, while any northern transportation strategy has to take into account the volatility of world commodity prices and their effect on the economics of northern resource development, businesses also need to see a return on their investment. One way Cameron outlined that could help ensure that ROI for businesses would be for governments to make solid infrastructure commitments, primarily roads and bridges. “A long-term vision for strategic infrastructure commitments could make the difference between ‘no go’ and ‘go’,” Cameron noted in his presentation.

A session on community and social accessibility recommended that any northern transportation strategy prioritize infrastructure funding to help develop the economy at large.

“We had a lot of discussion on that from some airlines and shipping companies,” Wallis said. “We talked about climate change and sustainability – very important topics when you’re looking at something as dramatic as the lessening of the sea ice and the consequences of that.”

One consequence of less ice could be more traffic through the Northwest passage, while another is that “the shoreline of the Arctic is now being more challenged by waves because normally it’s mostly been icebound in the past,” Wallis said, adding that “with some of the open waters, our navigation charts are not up to speed because they haven’t had to be – no one navigates through the pack ice. Now, with those waters somewhat opening, we need to know where all the bad stuff is.”

And while more open water might make it easier to get stuff into the north, it also creates the need for suitable ports so the communities up there can receive the goods. Wallis cited the example of some safe havens in northern Quebec ports, where a break wall has been built around which barges can travel and land their the materials onto the beach safely. That’s only one possible solution, though.

“Even something as simple as extending the season for ice breaking would allow these ships with the cargo for the settlements to operate over a longer period of time, and allow the re-supply to go off in a more efficient way,” Wallis said.

Addressing the topic of sovereignty in the great north, Dr. Rob Heubert, associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic studies at the University of Calgary, spoke of Canada’s need to access and protect its territorial interests in an area where other nations, such as Russia, Denmark and the US (as well as some aboriginal groups), have vested interests and claims. Heubert noted the growing importance of the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route, both of which have seen increasing transits over the past few years. In the case of the NSR, for example, Heubert noted a rise in transits from six in 2010 to 46 in 2012, which may not seem like much right now but which could foreshadow a trend.

A session entitled ‘Plausible approaches to Northern Transportation,’ chaired by Transport Canada’s Jutta Paczulla, looked into various alternatives for creating “a balanced and well-integrated transportation system with minimal duplications and maximum efficiency.” Russell Neudorf, Deputy Minister of Transportation for the NWT government, noted during the session that most of the resource and development-rich areas of his home territory are accessible only by air, or by some 1,450 kilometres of winter roads that are rebuilt each year.

One way accessibility could be increased would be to construct all season roads; Neudorf, calling it the “cornerstone of the GNWT’s plan for present and future economic development,” noted that a 920-km all-weather highway has been proposed for the Mackenzie Valley Corridor to Tuktoyaktuk.

One of the biggest challenges is how to pay for such work, and Neudorf called for new sources of financing to be found by “promoting partnerships with stakeholders (oil and gas, mining) and the federal government to implement strat

He also called for a national transportation strategy that recognizes that, thanks to the uniqueness of the north, “one size does not fit all.”

Neudorf also wants to see a transportation strategy that goes beyond economic issues, to consider “social benefits, sovereignty, accessibility, mobility” in any decisions.

Robert Long, Nunavut’s Deputy Minister of Economic Development and Transportation, focused on the perceived need for better air, maritime and road infrastructure to improve links to the rest of Canada as well as capturing “the potential benefits of international air traffic.”

Calling air travel “Nunavut’s lifeline,” he noted that a significant increase in such traffic, coupled with aging current facilities, has created the need for a new, $300-million airport in Iqaluit, to be financed as a P3 project.

Long also pointed out that the region’s marine infrastructure is out of date, inefficient and “unacceptable in comparison to the rest of Canada” and called for a road link to the national highway system. He noted that, as with the NWT’s proposed Mackenzie Valley Corridor all-season road, an all-season highway from Manitoba to Nunavut’s Rankin Inlet has been proposed.

According to Wallis, the main takeaway from the conference was that, since transportation policy is so vital to Canada as a whole – as well as its individual units – good policy creates opportunities for the country to “excel in transportation supply chain logistics. We need to take this opportunity simply to get it right, to make sure we’ve got the best infrastructure in place, and that would lead to the argument that we need good policies to help us develop that infrastructure,” he said. Cooperation between the various stakeholders is also required, Wallis said, noting that it appears the message is starting to get through.

“I think government and industry are now coming closer and closer together to understanding that they’re more or less joined at the hip when it comes to getting our products to market in the most efficient way,” he said, “and to do that we have to have great infrastructure. So I think the understanding of the absolute need to do this on a collective basis is becoming much clearer.”

Feedback from the approximately 90 people on hand was “very positive, actually,” Wallis said. “I was delighted to see not only from speakers but participants saying they’re glad we did this.”

Now that the conference is over, the next step is for the Van Horne Institute to create a report. “I think we’ll certainly come out with something that’ll be thematic,” Wallis said. “What we heard and the major issues that should be addressed within the context of policy and infrastructure.”

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