What do you think Canada’s North will look like in the next 15 years or so?

I don’t think the North will change as much as others think. Climate change will have an affect, but nothing like the scale people are talking about. Changes will be small, and they’ll be up and down, I don’t think we’re going to see a massive extension in the intensity of development. There will be more mines and other resource developments, but I suspect they will be smaller in scale than people expect.

Which areas do you see experiencing the most impact?

If you’re like most Canadians, you refer to “the Canadian North” as likely the Yukon and Northwest Territories. In fact, the most important economic part of the North is actually from Labrador to northern British Columbia. That area is already booming. Major projects in such sectors as hydro, marine, forestry, and other resource activities are a huge part of Canada’s economic development; our economic future rests on the shoulders of these projects.

In the next fifteen years, you’re going to see the consequences from much more empowered Aboriginal communities. Communities that were previously very impoverished will try to respond to these great socioeconomic challenges and opportunities. Economic progress will be tied to the resource sector, which will continue to be strong throughout the North.

You’ll also see an increase of Aboriginal people being hired. This can already been seen in the resource developments, which has a much higher percentage of Aboriginal people in the workforce than in any other sector. And it will continue to be that way going forward. Those Aboriginal communities will be stronger, more resilient, and more skilled. It’ll take more than one generation to overcome the trauma of the past, but you’re already seeing progress in statistics like the increased Aboriginal high school graduation rates.

How might technology impact the resource sector—and the economic development of the Canadian North as a whole?

We’ll see extremely rapid acceleration in technology that will replace labour across almost all sectors of the Canadian economy. The degree to which new technology is going to destroy jobs and transform the workforce is going to be unprecedented in terms of both speed and magnitude. My guess is that there’ll be an absolutely traumatic impact across the entire nation. Fifteen to twenty years from now, people are going to look back on the conversations we’re having today as of being from a more old-fashioned, almost quaint age.

The North will feel this very strongly. An acceleration of reliance on fly-in, fly-out workers could be changed by mines that could operated almost entirely from the south, by way of remote control machinery, drones and other technological innovations.

Do you see these changes specific to the Canadian North?

We’re going to see very dramatic changes in the way Canada does business in northern Canada. The North is more susceptible to technological changes because there are a relatively small number of economic opportunities. If more of these economic activities go towards remote control operations, then the impact will be pronounced. Given the high cost of recruiting and retaining works in the North, companies will be eager to seek technological solutions.

Northern resources are going to be ever more valuable as time goes on. Prices and demand will go up. I don’t see any decline in any major resource activity overall, al though it’ll go up and down in cycles. Overall, we’ll see a strong and robust resource economy with greater Aboriginal participation—but a declining workforce overall because of these new technologies.

How long can this resource boom last?

Oh, boy. We haven’t even scratched the surface. We’re always discovering new mines only a short distance from the one we’ve last deemed as “the last mine.” We’ve got mineral resource developments from the 1950s that we haven’t yet touched because the prices aren’t right and extractive opportunities posed technological challenges. We develop the easiest and most valuable resources first. In the terms of the North, we really have a couple of centuries’ worth of work ahead of us. We’re not going to be done with those development opportunities any time soon.

What about unresolved land claims? How will they impact the way the Canadian North does business?

Unresolved land claims have considerable impact on employment and economic development. On the positive side, Saskatchewan’s treaty and land entitlement process brought considerable money to Aboriginal peoples in compensation for badly drawn treaties from hundreds of years ago.

We are already starting to see the rapid rise of Aboriginal development corporations, which have become major economic forces in the Canadian economy. These are development corporations are community or beneficiary-controlled holding companies that often have other companies underneath them. Many of these Aboriginal development corporations have assets in the hundreds of millions of dollars. They use this money to invest in local business, training Aboriginal workers, or improve their communities. We’re actually seeing a more rapid rise in Aboriginal employment, particularly with Aboriginal companies, than we anticipated.

About the author

Ken Coates

Ken Coates is a professor and Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan’s Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy. Raised in the Yukon, he is also a historian with a focus on the Canadian North and Aboriginal rights.