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Territorial premiers commit to building stronger North

Predominant in the 2025 Northern Premiers Forum was discussions of Arctic security and sovereignty
Federal ministers and premiers gather at the Nunavut Commissioners House in Iqaluit on May 5. Left to right: Minister of Northern Affairs Dan Vandal, NWT Premier R. J. Simpson, Minister of Defence Bill Blair, Nunavut Premier P.J. Akeeagok, Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly, Yukon Premier Ranj Pallai, and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence, Yvonne Jones.

The annual Northern Premiers’ Forum was held in Pond Inlet from May 6-8, 2024.

The three northern premiers -- P.J. Akeeagok, Ranj Pillai, and R.J. Simpson -- took the opportunity to meet and speak with the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, Elders and other community members.

In so doing, they came to further appreciate “the strength of collaboration amongst community, Indigenous and territorial leadership on wellness and diversified economic development." Topics under discussion included Arctic security and sovereignty, disaster preparedness and response, critical infrastructure gaps, housing needs, and the health and well-being of Northerners.

Arctic sovereignty and security

Of note was the release of the updated federal policy on national defence and foreign relations related to Arctic security and sovereignty.

By meeting in a community along the Northwest Passage, the premiers recognize that communities like Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet) are key to Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic in the coming years. The three premiers were pleased to see their past efforts in raising the profile of northern security and the pivotal role of northern people acknowledged in the recently announced updates to Canada’s national defence policy, Our North Strong and Free: A Renewed Vision for Canada’s Defence.

In a released joint statement, all three “premiers welcome federal efforts to improve Arctic security and the commitment to work with northern leaders to ensure investments like multi-use infrastructure, such as deep water ports, support the shared regional interests across Canada’s territories. They also noted the need for improved federal search and rescue capacity in the Arctic and the North. The defence policy will play an important role in addressing critical infrastructure gaps, supporting economic and social development in the North, and strengthening communities, while meeting national defence and security needs.”

Addressing critical infrastructure gaps

The defence policy also included plans for “substantial investment in critical infrastructure areas including transportation, energy, and telecommunications is needed to address significant gaps across northern communities.”

The premiers are emphasizing the need for federal collaboration in creating infrastructure programs that prioritize climate resilience. This also includes emergency preparedness and management, as the Arctic is feeling the effects of climate change faster than the rest of the world. This is evident from the 2023 flood and fire season, from which leaders gained valuable experience and insight that were also part of discussion.

Also under discussion were updates to community planning and future approaches to working with Indigenous governments, municipalities, businesses, and other northern stakeholders. “Premiers reiterated the importance of collaboration and cooperation across jurisdictions and with all orders of government to prevent, respond, manage, and recover from natural disasters.”

The territories alone do not have the fiscal capacity to fund all ongoing disaster management at the current scale. The federal government will be needed to help modernize emergency response policies in order to “ensure timely, flexible, adequate, and culturally appropriate support and funding is available in responding to emergency events, and to provide additional disaster mitigation funding to better prepare northern communities for future threats.”

Health and wellness of northern communities

The usage of illicit drugs continues to impact the well-being of northern communities. The premiers discussed continued efforts to help improve supports for mental health as well as expanding treatment and harm reduction options.

They also discussed the need to expand all treatment options across the North, and specifically aftercare availability in home communities.

“The health and well-being of Northerners remains top of mind for premiers. They appreciate federal efforts to reflect northern needs in health funding agreements and agreed that continued collaboration is needed. Escalating health costs continue to take up a significant portion of territorial budgets. The increases to the costs of travel, including for non-insured health benefits and covered dental care, have been a driver. An area of significant concern is flexible funding to replace health infrastructure, including information technology systems.”

Top of the agenda when it comes to dealing with health-care challenges is ensuring that there is continued emphasis on filling and retaining health-care positions across the North. The premiers committed to sharing best practices in the area of health human resources. They will also continue to monitor the status of federal legislation tabled on national universal pharmacare, and “look forward to receiving more information from the federal government on the program’s roll out, including coverage for high-cost drugs for rare diseases."

The premiers will continue to reiterate that any federal policies contemplated must consider the distinct needs of the territories, which also takes into account fiscal capacity and the large Indigenous population.

Ensuring housing needs are met across the North

Affordable, sustainable, and secure housing continues to be a critical issue in the North. The acute challenges in addressing housing needs were under discussion, including higher construction costs, the limited local labour force and the general scarcity of housing supply in remote and isolated communities. The premiers committed to continued close collaboration with the federal government and Indigenous government leaders, with the goal of creating comprehensive housing programs that include supportive housing and improved affordability.

Housing development is also a potential area of opportunity to further develop the economy and support northern residents by helping them gain the education, skills, and experience necessary in the trades.

“Finally, premiers reiterated their commitment to working together to create a long-term prosperous future for territorial residents and all of Canada and look forward to working with their provincial colleagues at the upcoming Western Premiers’ Conference and the Council of the Federation later this summer.”

The Yukon has been confirmed as the upcoming location of the Northern Premiers’ Forum for 2025.

Kira Wronska Dorward

About the Author: Kira Wronska Dorward

I attended Trinity College as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, graduating in 2012 as a Specialist in History. In 2014 I successfully attained a Master of Arts in Modern History from UofT..
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