Macdonald-Laurier Institute senior fellow Ken Coates and Prof. Greg Poelzer draw attention to a vast region of the country that has been politically marginalized

OTTAWA, April 24, 2014 – Spare a thought for the "provincial Norths". An enormous region of this country is politically marginalized, with social and economic problems unheard of in southern Canada, and significantly worse than even those faced by the northern territories.

In a new commentary paper titled "The Next Northern Challenge: The Reality of the Provincial North", Macdonald-Laurier Institute senior fellow Ken Coates and University of Saskatchewan professor Greg Poelzer draw Canadians' attention to the varied jurisdictions of the northern portions of seven provinces, and the many problems they face.

The provincial North, despite the lack of national attention to the region, is of great importance to Canada's present and future. The sub-Arctic portions of the provinces have close to 1.5 million residents, hold enormous resource potential in oil and gas, forestry, mining, and hydro-electric development, and are home to dozens of culturally distinct First Nations, Métis, and Inuit groups. If this region were a province, it would have more Members of Parliament than any of the Maritime Provinces.

But of course, the provincial North does not belong to any one province. Coates and Poelzer write: "The ill-suited highway system leading to Fort McMurray is the responsibility of the Government of Alberta and does not register on Quebec's list of concerns. Distressingly poor educational outcomes in northern Saskatchewan fall at the feet of the federal Aboriginal Affairs department, and to a lesser extent the government of Saskatchewan". They compare the drawing of provincial boundaries with the "establishment of colonial borders in Africa", which has created "artificial barriers that have subsequently defined the political life in the region". They argue that provinces have come to rely on northern resource wealth but they have little desire to share it with the residents of the provincial Norths. "Marginalization, therefore, serves provincial governments very well and helps sustain the provincial economies and provincial authorities". They charge that the provinces have little incentive to restructure political arrangements to better serve northern regions.

The paper is a companion piece to a major paper by Coates and Poelzer released last week, titled "An Unfinished Nation: Completing the devolution revolution in Canada's North". The paper demonstrates that while many challenges remain, the key to successful governance of Canada's vast Arctic is the process of devolution. That is, the transfer of government power, authority, and resources from the national government to sub-national governments.

With regard to the provincial Norths, Coates and Poelzer call for a federal plan to improve political and socio-economic conditions in the region. They note "the oddity of a massive federal presence in the territorial North and minimal on-the-ground activities just a few miles south is one of the most surprising and little discussed realities of Canadian federalism".

Coates and Poelzer argue that while Canada's constitutional arrangement poses barriers to success, there's no reason the federal and provincial governments can't co-operate as they have with health care, post-secondary education and Aboriginal self-government.

"To date, there is no national sense of urgency associated with empowering the region," write Coates and Poelzer. They encourage Canadians and their governments to recognize that the nation's "most pressing challenges are to be found in an area that few Canadians give so much as a thought, the provincial Norths".

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Ken Coates is the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, as well as the Director of the International Centre for Northern Governance and Development at the University of Saskatchewan. In 2013 he was named the Macdonald-Laurier Institute's Senior Fellow in Aboriginal and Northern Canadian Issues.

Greg Poelzer is the Founding Director and Executive Chair of the University of Saskatchewan International Centre for Northern Governance and Development (ICNGD). He is an Associate Professor of Political Studies and an Associate Member of the schools of Public Policy and Environment and Sustainability at the university.

The Macdonald-Laurier Institute is the only non-partisan, independent national public policy think tank in Ottawa focusing on the full range of issues that fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

For more information, please contact David Watson, managing editor and communications director, at 613-482-8327 x. 103 or email at david.watson@macdonaldlaurier.ca. On Twitter @MLInstitute