WINNIPEG, MB - In 2016, the Look North Task Force, led by co-chairs Onekanew Christian Sinclair, chief of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, and Chuck Davidson, president of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce and a native northerner, was appointed by Premier Brian Pallister.
The job of the Task Force has been to re-discover the endless energy that made Manitoba a leader in resource development for many years. The members have been tasked to open the doors of opportunity to the indigenous peoples who form the large majority up north, to empower current entrepreneurs and to let fresh air into the resource industries.
On this journey of discovery, the Task Force travelled from community to community for much of the past year, holding round tables and seeking made-in-the-north answers to questions of enterprise, education, training, and development.
Referencing the premier's plan to fix finances, repair services and rebuild economic structure, the Task Force focused on the possibilities rather than the failures of the past. Their goal was to ask those who live and work in the North, what they need to make it a vibrant, humming force again and then to look for strategies to make this happen.
Key among their findings was that the sense of enterprise that always drove the North has been largely dissipated by people coming in from the outside to tell them how to fix things, while creating barriers through regulations, rules and inappropriate initiatives that discouraged local residents from tackling things in their own way.
The Task Force, simply by encouraging discussion and focusing on solutions, has already gone a long way toward lifting the sense of helplessness that has created inertia in the North. This includes the mining sector, which, it was agreed, had been the engine of growth for the past 80 years and could continue that way for at least as long again.
The Task Force learned that in 2015, the Manitoba mining industry was worth only $1.3 billion compared to Saskatchewan's $8.5 billion and Ontario's $10.7 billion. They also learned that with a change in attitude by government and regulators, this can be turned around and mining can once again become the engine of growth for the North.
While important, mining is only one source of growth and enterprise. There is also the forest industry. Newcomer Canadian Kraft Paper Industries Ltd. sees opportunities for expansion and wants to invest more.
The Task Force also saw the opportunities in agriculture, not just on the vast Carrot River Valley, but in other centres where food can be produced locally given the right encouragement.
As in all of Canada, the greatest potential, however, lies in the small and medium sized businesses that spring up to meet a need, that scale up through finding new markets and that provide training and employment for local people. What is holding them back? A bureaucratic system supporting a morass of limiting regulation and roadblocks. Twenty five percent of the workforce in the North works for government which does not build economies.
First Nations potential feels "locked up" (the words used by the report) by structural and regulatory restraints, by long term government dependence and limitations on enterprise, says the report, which goes on to note that "the regulatory and structural constraints appear to be continuing the intent of their creation, to isolate and control the indigenous population." Case in point? An idea to build a local inbound hunting and fishing industry controlled by First Nations who could bring in people from crowded Asian countries and give them an authentic experience using local indigenous guides is impossible because the guides currently have to be licensed by government and flown in from somewhere else.
Small business feels locked up too, by environmental and regulatory rules established from outside by people with no understanding of the realities of the North or the needs of the businesses. Case in point? A pending federal regulation would limit the whale watching enterprises in Hudson Bay, which teems with the animals in summer. Regulations are contemplated that would limit how close a boat or a snorkeler can come to a whale - an untenable plan to anyone who has ever seen how the whales flock to a novel item in the water.
It's not all government bureaucracy holding northerners back, though. There is the 'crab in a bucket', syndrome, which says that "if I can't have it, neither can you" and drags down enterprising crabs trying to get out of the pot. This is a typical attitude among the under-employed, and it comes from years of stifling enterprise.
But all that will be changing. The report aims to re-empower northerners to take back their land and make it sing by supporting local enterprise, making regulation enable rather than limit, encouraging true engagement and partnerships between First Nations, Metis and the rest of the population; revising education and training to meet the actual needs of communities; encouraging investment, and celebrating local success through stronger and more collaborative communication.
This is a first step, say the co-chairs, understanding that strategy papers and action plans need follow up. But it is a giant step in the right direction. It is the first time the white and indigenous communities have come together to resolve issues in partnership, to create opportunities and to rebuild relationships that have been soured by an attitude of paternalism.
The citizens of the North are tough and brave. They have to overcome adversity every day and are stronger because of it. Now, after years of subjugation by government interference in their lives, they have permission to get back to the business of building and growing again.
And they will.
Dorothy Dobbie, Manitoba Post