There is a discrepancy between the North as a frontier versus the North as a homeland.
Mark Nuttall

Canada’s North is open for business—or is it?

Part 2 of an in-depth look at northern research at the University of Alberta.


The University of Alberta is one of the world’s northernmost research universities. From studying ancient ice that reveals clues about Earth’s changing climate, to looking at the impact of resource development on the North, to helping protect and preserve Aboriginal cultures and traditional knowledge, U of A researchers have spent decades getting to the bottom of what’s happening at the top of the world.

In August 2012, as part of his annual northern tour, Prime Minister Stephen Harper confidently announced that Canada’s North was open for business. Canadians, Mr. Harper said, should expect “unprecedented economic development in the next five years” in the northern territories. The prime minister’s words didn’t come as a surprise to many northerners, or those “south of 60” who follow northern issues.

Until recently, Canada’s North was shrouded in mystery. Now the North is considered by many to be the final frontier for natural resource development.

Natural gas, oil, copper, zinc, gold and diamonds are on the list of subsurface riches humanity is racing to claim. But the North isn’t a free-for all; Canada’s Arctic is vast, expensive to traverse, and a harsh mistress for those unprepared for her climatic whims. As the world turns its eyes northward, researchers are striving to understand what is out there, who is out there and what we do next. Given its position as one of the world’s northernmost research universities, as well as the range and depth of its northern expertise, these are questions the University of Alberta is uniquely placed to answer.

Economic spoils, ecological surprises


As of 2011, Canada was the world’s third largest diamond producer after Botswana and Russia, accounting for 17.7 per cent of world production by value. Earth sciences professor and Canada Excellence Research Chair in Arctic Resources Graham Pearson and his team have made some amazing discoveries about the North’s other “ice,” in their efforts to assist the resource development industry in mineral exploration.

Though the bread and butter of Pearson’s work is analyzing potential diamond deposits, the data he is collecting and the methods he has developed have a much wider reach. Through his work on kimberlite deposits (a marker for diamond), Pearson made one of the greatest discoveries in geology in a generation—he found the first-ever terrestrial sample of a mineral called ringwoodite. Analysis of the mineral showed it contains a significant amount of water, a finding that confirms scientific theories about vast volumes of water trapped 410 to 660 kilometres beneath the Earth’s surface.

Pearson and his students travel to the far reaches of the Arctic to investigate industry prospects and help corporations decide whether a diamond deposit is likely to be profitable. However, it is very expensive to travel to these mineral claims, on the order of $15,000 to $20,000 per day. That kind of price tag can’t be supported by the university alone—and that’s where partnerships come in.

“Companies provide research support through cost-sharing models,” explains Pearson. “This kind of arrangement allows us to get to places we wouldn’t ever get to otherwise.”

Understanding the nature of the North

The U of A also supports Arctic research through the Department of Biological Sciences. Environmental scientists like Rolf Vinebrooke work north of 60 or high above the treeline in the Rockies, studying plant and animal species that are uniquely adapted to their frigid environment, but struggle with changes caused by human activity. The goal is to help understand how resource development affects the North’s natural balance.

“Although organisms and communities have long since evolved to tolerate natural disturbances, they can be ecologically naïve when coping with exposure to stressors such as air pollution, nutrient deposition from the atmosphere, climate change, toxic chemicals and biological contaminants like invasive species,” says Vinebrooke.

Northern fauna and flora have much less time to bud, bloom, mate and grow in the short Arctic summer. Whereas subsurface resources are plenty, ecosystems above ground are “species poor”—relatively few species are adapted to live there. And as Vinebrooke notes, their specialization comes at a cost: “These organisms aren’t very productive, and they are very sensitive—not to environmental factors like extremely cold temperatures, but rather novel stressors like extreme warming events and air pollution.”

The question of whether Arctic ecosystems will evolve quickly enough to tolerate human disturbances is of interest to people across the North. With that in mind, Vinebrooke focuses on the cumulative impacts of multiple stressors on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in mountain, boreal and Arctic lakes.

A mine, for example, will remove part of the surface, but the trucks will also emit exhaust and the noise from the processing plant can also have an effect. As Vinebrooke points out, “Sometimes one stressor will amplify the effect of another, and the net effect isn’t simply the sum of two stressors; it is something else. The results are what we call ecological surprises, when the net cumulative impacts are not what an ecologist would have expected based on our existing knowledge.

“Things were hard on Earth before, but that doesn’t mean that those species that survived [the ice age] are necessarily going to be the ones that can tolerate global change in the future. It is probably actually the reverse.”

The people of the North: charting new courses

Supporting northerners’ participation in decision-making areas such as resource development is exactly what the U of A and Yukon College in Whitehorse have been doing for the past six years through a collaborative degree program offered through the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences and the Faculty of Native Studies.

With professor Fiona Schmiegelow at its helm and with the support of former dean of native studies Ellen Bielawski, the program sees students complete two years of courses through the college, then finish their degree with the U of A without leaving the Yukon. In 2013, the program awarded the first BSc north of 60 in Canada.

“We started this program to address a real need to develop capacity to deal with the pressing environmental, social and economic issues facing the North,” says Schmiegelow. “We found that the transition was so difficult in going south for school, many students weren’t successful.”

Many of the students in the program are professionals from federal, territorial and First Nations governments. Returning to school part-time to deepen their understanding of natural and social sciences, they are often the people on the front line of issues concerning wildlife conservation, land use, resource management under modern treaties, social and cultural awareness, and energy development. Graduates of the program will shape decisions and provide leadership on challenging and topical issues in the North.

The students graduate with a U of A bachelor’s degree in environment and conservation sciences with a major in northern systems. And although the U of A has several co-operative degree programs through various faculties (including education, nursing and engineering), this program is different. Instead of teaching curriculum identical to that delivered at the U of A, this program has developed customized curriculum, with a number of new courses offered only in the Yukon.

But the idea isn’t to create something separate; it is to build bridges. The program also offers a field course called Northern Exposures, in which Edmonton students travel to Whitehorse to learn alongside students from the North. For many, it is their first experience in the North, so in addition to some basics about geography, they learn about the natural and cultural heritage of the region. With guidance from elders and other local experts, and visits to some of the communities outside of Whitehorse, the students see co-management in the North first-hand.

New frontier or old homeland?

The North may look like an uninhabited wasteland, but diverse communities have thrived north of the 60th parallel for millennia. There are a dozen unique Aboriginal languages and myriad traditional ways of knowing, teaching and learning. What does it mean to be an Aboriginal person in Canada’s Arctic with the ice melting and the world rapidly changing?

That is a key question being asked by anthropology professor Mark Nuttall. “Since I began working in the North in the 1980s, the Arctic narrative has changed and the North has emerged as a geopolitical region of international significance.” There has been a recent proliferation of books and articles portraying the Arctic as a place on the verge of a dramatic environmental transformation as a result of climate change. And in a sense, it is climate change that is opening up new possibilities for resource development. As the Arctic changes, as the sea ice disappears, there is a belief that the Arctic is opening up for business.

Nuttall is careful to point out that historically, mining has been underway in the Arctic for a hundred years. “There is a huge kryolite mine in southern Greenland that produced from the 1860s and closed in the 1980s,” he says, adding that projects have been underway in the Canadian North for almost as long, since the 1930s. There is a long history of mineral development, and it continues to be a growth industry.

Natural resource extraction has been the catalyst for indigenous movements toward self-determination and land claims globally, and these remote corners of the Arctic are providing a real-time opportunity for study, and for getting consultation right.


Today, questions about who owns the resources continue to be in the spotlight. As recently as 2014, the Northwest Territories devolved the management of its natural resources from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada to the territorial government. This move effectively takes the reins away from Ottawa and hands them to Yellowknife and the Aboriginal governments in a co-management model.

In Nunavut, elders and citizens in Clyde River, where resources are still under the control of the federal government, have grave concerns about seismic testing (a precursor to drilling for oil) off their shores. They are worried about how seismic testing will affect the marine mammals they hunt.

These concerns are echoed by the Greenlanders across Baffin Bay, who face the same questions. In the village of Kullorsuaq, Nuttall is working with natural scientists, indigenous hunters and local politicians to help determine the best course. The desire to extract valuable subsurface and marine resources is appealing in the short term, but local people are careful to take the long view. This new project has seen biologists and hunters working together for the first time, gathering data about the effects of seismic testing on narwhals. Though both groups were apprehensive at first, the partnership paid dividends, with both indigenous traditional knowledge and western science being enriched by the expertise of the other.

“We shared information, charts and systems, and then the local people were able to add their own information and experience,” says Nuttall. “It allows for a conversation and an understanding that you can’t extract knowledge from a social context.”

Nuttall notes another “misunderstanding” between northerners and southerners: “There is a discrepancy between the North as a frontier versus the North as a homeland.” In Greenland, companies have a duty to inform people of their plans, but there is no requirement to consult—a perfect example of the invisibility of the people and cultures that have resided there for thousands of years.

As with the rush in the 1970s to exploit the natural gas in the Mackenzie Valley, for example, resource development in the North seems inevitable. Yet, as Nuttall notes, “There is a notion that we must develop the North, but no one asks what the alternatives could be. The Mackenzie Valley pipeline is still not built, but the North is still there.”

PART 1: Unlocking the clues to climate change

PART 3: Preserving culture, protecting health