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While signals point to an economic boom in the Arctic, the reality is that a growing education deficit in Inuit Nunangat is preventing many Inuit from fully participating in the workforce.

By Mary Simon, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami

I often talk about the dramatic political and social transformations that has undergone in the past several decades. But recently I had the opportunity to talk business with Northern and Southern business leaders, first at the 2012 Northern Lights Business Showcase in Ottawa, and then at the Toronto Board of Trade.

I talked about how, from a business perspective, the changes we have seen across the Arctic over the last 50 years have been quite extraordinary — unlike anywhere else in Canada. And how it will take some strategic investments to sustain the current level of growth.

Years ago, when land claims were still a foreign concept to many people, the business community in the Arctic consisted of a Hudson’s Bay store, and very little else. Today, you’ll find businesses of all kinds and sizes — many of them Inuit-owned.

That transformation did not come easily. The phenomenal growth we have witnessed in the Arctic is related in part to an investment environment that is a product of many years of negotiations and struggle. It’s hard to forget that Northern economies were once largely controlled by Southern interests. It’s equally apparent, however, that those days are over.

Inuit have become major investors throughout the Arctic. And Southern investors who seek to develop our natural resources must expect that they will do so only in partnership with Inuit.

Quite simply, it is an exciting time to be a business person in the Arctic today. Yet it is within this dynamic environment that we encounter the great paradox of Inuit Nunangat.

How is it that in Nunavut, as an example, where the GDP rose by an astonishing 15 per cent last year, there is a shortage of labour — and unemployment can be as high as 70 per cent in some communities?

As the Territorial Premiers pointed out in their 2007 Northern Vision document, the North has critical shortages of qualified homegrown workers — men and women with trades skills and professional qualifications.

So while all the signals are pointing to an economic boom unfolding in the Arctic over the next decade or two or four, the stark reality is that many of our people will be unable to participate in the economy.

We have an education deficit in Inuit Nunangat, and as Canadians we have a moral and ethical responsibility to pay down this debt by investing in education. In fact, this responsibility is so great it cannot be government’s alone. After all, it takes a community to educate a child. That’s the central message of First Canadians, Canadians First: The National Strategy on Inuit Education.

We know, of course, that some families are struggling to get their children to school every day rested and well fed. And this is where the business community can make a difference: by supporting breakfast programs and after-school programs that provide that
extra bit of support.

Businesses can provide a critical link between schools and the labour force by encouraging financial literacy, and sponsoring apprenticeships, work placements and continuing education for employees. They can also provide scholarships, and major program investments in areas related to their expertise.

Inuit-owned corporations have a role to play as well. I believe our major resource development agreements should pay a regular education dividend for community-based education projects aimed at keeping our children in school.

We can change things together. For businesses, it’s quite practical — they are building a workforce, a client base. For our children, they are making dreams come true.