If We Build It, They Will Stay

Instead of extracting resources and leaving, we could populate the mid-Canada corridor—and create a bigger, better country

A hand-drawn map
Map by Chris Brackley

Forty-seven years ago, perhaps in the outsized spirit of Expo 67, the retired major general and author Richard Rohmer put forward a bold proposal in Mid-Canada Development Corridor: A Concept. It described a vast landmass stretching from Newfoundland and Labrador across Quebec, Ontario, and the Prairies, to British Columbia and up through Northwest Territories and Yukon, occupying the area between southern settlements and the treeline—a band dominated by boreal forest. His idea was to implement a national strategy to develop and populate it.

Rohmer reasoned that Canada was poised to be a world leader in resource extraction, and that our future was tied to that endeavour. Mid-Canada was rich in minerals, oil, and gas, largely untouched, and had a habitable climate. The key to the plan was new infrastructure, which both the government and private sector would finance. At the time, there were a few north–south arteries in place, and more were needed; east–west links needed improvement. Some existing settlements could be expanded to serve as urban hubs. The middle of the country could be settled in much the same way the West had been settled three generations earlier, when Canada saw its future in agriculture.

The plan was studied at various conferences, but the final version in 1971 failed to attract the needed support of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, so it eventually withered and died. In 2002, the concept had resurfaced and was floated past Prime Minister Jean Chrétien under the sails of northern Saskatchewan Liberal MP Rick Laliberte, who made a case for it as an instrument for that recurring and ephemeral Canadian trope: national unity. Laliberte asked Chrétien to finance a mid-Canada policy and planning research institute, with the aim of weaving the country’s forgotten midland into the larger national fabric. While Chrétien was interested, he was soon distracted by more pressing issues (the sponsorship scandal; the ongoing death match with his finance minister Paul Martin), and once again the idea sank beneath the waves.

In the years since, and absent such a strategy, the mid-Canada corridor has been developed ad hoc, moving west from the East Coast: Newfoundland’s offshore oil; Labrador’s cobalt, copper, iron ore, and nickel; Quebec’s copper, hydro projects, and nickel; Ontario’s chromite, copper, and gold; Manitoba’s goldfields and nickel; Saskatchewan’s potash and uranium; Alberta’s oil sands; and, finally, British Columbia’s proposed liquid natural gas facilities and northern pipeline to Kitimat. But despite this activity, Rohmer’s plan is still worth revisiting because it addresses issues that are central to Canada’s future: climate change, immigration, resource extraction, urban growth, and—perhaps most urgently—Aboriginal relations.

Eighty percent of the Canadian population lives within 160 kilometres of our southern border. The Far North, though largely unpopulated, has always been part of our national identity, and under Stephen Harper, who is keenly aware of threats to our northern sovereignty, it has become a strategic asset and an increasingly important site of natural-resource interests. But the millions of square kilometres in between these two areas have represented something of a forgotten zone, even though mid-Canada is quickly becoming the most productive part of the economy, defines our country internationally as a vast reservoir of natural resources, and is home to the majority of First Peoples in Canada.

Globally, the standard approach to mining has been to create a temporary settlement, extract the resource, and move on, leaving behind an environmental and societal mess. As an architect and planner with a special interest in mining regions and towns, I’ve seen the damage first-hand. For the companies doing the extraction, developing countries are ideal: labour is cheap, the enforcement of environmental restrictions lax, and legal recourse for aggrieved locals minimal. This explains why these countries often end up poorer as a result of such projects. Nigeria is an example. While it has made hundreds of billions of dollars from oil, close to two-thirds of Nigeria’s 170 million people live in extreme poverty. The country exports millions of barrels of oil every day, but thanks to government corruption and anemic public institutions it lacks a reliable electrical grid to light workers’ homes.

To address the inequity between emerging economies and foreign investment giants, the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank’s private-sector lending arm, established performance standards for companies operating in the developing world. It provides broad guidance to “avoid, minimize, and, where residual impacts remain, to compensate/offset for risks and impacts to workers, Affected Communities, and the environment.” The standards include detailed protocols to encourage transparency, inclusion, and the creation of grievance mechanisms. There are also rules for pollution prevention and abatement. Most international resource companies now abide by the IFC guidelines—doing so makes getting financing easier.

Unfortunately, IFC guidelines don’t apply to corporations operating in developed countries. So while Canada faces many of the same issues as developing countries—exploitation of Indigenous peoples, internal migration to jobs that leads to significant population shifts, and environmental degradation—there’s an assumption that existing regulations will force resource companies to behave responsibly. The problem is that Canada’s environmental laws were weakened in 2012 by the passage of Bills C-38 and C-45, which amended or repealed ten pieces of important legislation, including the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act. Besides our three oceans, the renamed Navigation Protection Act safeguards only sixty-two rivers and ninety-seven lakes—roughly one percent of the country’s waterways. “The Conservative agenda,” writes Megan Leslie, NDP MP for Halifax, “systematically dismantles any environmental legislation that might restrict unbridled expansion of their resource exploitation agenda.”

As developing countries introduce more stringent environmental guidelines, we are relaxing ours. At the Ontario Mining Forum in 2013, Les Louttit, deputy grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, complained, “We are in constant states of emergency and face Third World conditions in one of the richest nations in the world. As our people struggle for the basic necessities of life—things other Canadians take for granted, like shelter and food—our backyard is teeming with economic opportunities.” He argued that Ontario’s Mining Act, amended in 2009, contravened IFC guidelines, which call for free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous peoples affected by development.

Resource companies go where it is most profitable to operate, and Canada, as federal and provincial politicians are fond of saying, is open for business. The challenge is to secure the maximum benefit for both Indigenous peoples and the country as a whole while inflicting minimal damage on the environment. The next fifty years will tell the story, and three sites illustrate the issues.

The most advanced of the mid-Canada projects is the Athabasca Oil Sands. In 1967, when Sun Oil (now Suncor) opened its plant, Fort McMurray was a northern outpost of 3,387 people. As the oil sands attracted more and more investment, the town exploded, its population growth outpacing that of its housing and infrastructure. It is now a community of 72,944 people, with about 60,000 more living in camps on development sites well beyond its borders. The oil sands contain proven reserves of 170 billion barrels, roughly 13 percent of the global total. At current rates of production, the timeline for its full exploitation is estimated at more than 200 years, and yet existing First Nations, Metis, and non-Aboriginal communities are being built up on a haphazard, short-term basis.

This approach exacts both economic and social costs. Workers who live in camps spend their sizable paycheques in other cities, provinces, and countries. The workforce is predominantly male, with many of the married men having come without their families, and the bachelors having little hope of finding a partner. Predictably, the businesses that spring up to service such a population are those that take root in isolated masculine communities everywhere: drugs, alcohol, strip clubs, and prostitution.

The alternative, given that 200-year timeline, is to build permanent settlements. By 2045, oil production is forecast to increase to six million barrels a day, up from 2.1 million barrels a day in 2013, and the population of the area will reach 240,000. To accommodate this growth, Fort McMurray will need infrastructure and housing, which it won’t get without a fundamental rethinking of how we approach resource extraction.

Melissa Blake, the mayor of Wood Buffalo, Alberta, the regional municipality that contains Fort McMurray, complains that while her city pays the bills associated with runaway expansion, it doesn’t always share in the financial benefits. Under provincial law, it can’t tax projects that are under construction, even though it’s obliged to provide them services. The oil companies also get a break on property taxes, paying roughly three-quarters of what they would pay if they were assessed like other businesses.

But the problem is less about finding the money to build for the long run than it is about using what we’re already spending more productively. Just setting up a temporary settlement for 1,200 workers costs nearly $50 million, plus operating costs of $600 million over ten years. Building a permanent community would be less expensive for the oil companies; it would also benefit provincial taxpayers, who currently absorb some of the costs of these camps through reduced royalty payments.

What would a rational approach look like? In 2009, the Alberta government commissioned my firm to create one. The initial reports, the Comprehensive Regional Infrastructure Sustainability plans, were released in 2011 and 2012; they envisioned new settlements, including a town north of Fort McMurray and additional, smaller commuter hubs up to two hours away.

Wood Buffalo knows it needs to do something about the scattershot work camps multiplying to the north and south of Fort McMurray, but it hasn’t yet requested that land be released for development in those areas. Instead, its expansion plans are focused on Fort McMurray itself, and last year, the province announced the release of 22,000 hectares of land for that purpose—an area more than double the boom town’s current size. Until a similar release is announced for the hinterland, trailer parks with poor access to services will continue to be the norm.

Farther east, Thompson, Manitoba, sits on one of the largest and purest nickel deposits in the world. Originally mined by Canadian-based Inco, it was bought by the Brazilian giant Vale in 2006 for $19.2 billion. At the time, the project involved both underground and surface operations, and directly employed 1,600 of the town’s 12,829 residents, one-third of whom are Aboriginal. (Indirectly, it employed more than twice that number.) But the smelter was not up to code, and an upgrade would have cost $1 billion, so Vale decided to decommission the smelter in 2015 and ship the nickel to Sudbury, resulting in a loss of local employment.

In 2011, when my firm set out to address the challenges facing the community, our first hurdle was to identify who actually lived there. Information was scant, and bringing the various stakeholders to the table wasn’t easy. Nor was figuring out what to do once we got them there. The disparities were daunting: a foreign multinational with revenues of $60.4 billion (US) that year; five distinct Aboriginal organizations; the local chamber of commerce; the local economic development corporation; the municipal government; the province; and the dim shadow of the federal government. It was difficult to establish trust or even draft effective terms of reference.

The process took two years, but resulted in a diversification plan that incorporated regional interests, socio-economic development goals, land-use planning, infrastructure expansion, and—critically—Aboriginal concerns. It allowed both regional and urban Aboriginal groups to be fully engaged in planning for the long-term sustainability of their communities and their land bases. An updated regulatory framework was adopted in September 2013 that allowed for changes to local zoning bylaws, and other components of the plan could make their way into the province’s Northern Development Strategy.

Thompson could be a model for what will be one of the biggest challenges along the mid-Canada corridor: the Ring of Fire, a mineral-rich 5,000-square-kilometre section of northern Ontario that stretches from the James Bay Lowlands to a point 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. The federal government has projected it to be worth up to $60 billion; as the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario minister, Tony Clement said this region could become the economic equivalent of the oil sands.

In 2007, Noront Resources announced the discovery of copper, nickel, palladium, and platinum worth an estimated $550 million in the Ring of Fire, triggering a land rush. By 2012, there were 30,000 claims. More importantly, Cliffs Natural Resources, an American mining company, gained control of the region’s newly detected chromite deposits. Chromite is used in processing stainless steel, and most of the world’s reserves are in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kazakhstan, and Turkey. The chromite discovery in the Ring of Fire is the first of any significance in North America; Cliffs estimated it could mine 4.4 million metric tons annually, making Ontario the world’s fifth-largest supplier. (Because it has military applications, chromite is both a commercial and strategic asset. The US includes it on its National Defense Stockpile list of materials the country deems essential to security needs.)

The Ring of Fire deposits were a boon for the mining companies, which saw their stock prices rise, and to the federal government, which positions itself as a resource extraction–friendly regime. Thunder Bay mayor Keith Hobbs has announced that he wants his city to be “the next Fort McMurray,” adding, “but we’re hoping to do it right.” Indeed, the greatest challenges to sustainable development in the Ring of Fire are those that hang over the oil sands: housing, which is almost non-existent; well-planned, long-term infrastructure; the local Aboriginal claims; and environmental impact. These issues are intertwined. In May 2011, the Matawa Chiefs Council, representing the nine First Nations most directly affected, asked for a joint environmental review. But five months later, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency opted for a study that does not provide for meaningful Native consultation, prompting the chiefs to withdraw their support for the Ring of Fire projects.

One of the environmental issues is the presence of chromium-6, the industrial pollutant that Erin Brockovich found in drinking water in Hinkley, California, two decades ago. Environment Canada noted that the substance “will likely be released” by mining activity and may threaten both the environment and human health.

The Matawa Chiefs Council enlisted Bob Rae, formerly the interim leader of the federal Liberal Party, as its lead negotiator, while Ontario appointed former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci to represent its interests at the bargaining table. At issue was how and to what extent the First Nations would be involved in the mining boom, questions that touched on education, the environment, infrastructure, and economic concerns. In April, they reached a preliminary agreement.

Aboriginal Affairs has always been a difficult portfolio, having never entirely recovered from John A. Macdonald’s decision to starve the least aggressive First Nations by sending food only to those places “where the tomahawks are sharpest.” Current negotiations over land-use, mining, and environmental issues are bound by differing interpretations of treaties that go back more than a century. First Nations in the Ring of Fire are bound by Treaty 9, which three commissioners negotiated in 1905–06. One of them was Duncan Campbell Scott, a poet and bureaucrat who is now infamous as the architect of the residential school system. The others were Samuel Stewart and Daniel MacMartin. In his diary, MacMartin suggests the Aboriginal leaders signed a treaty they didn’t fully understand, largely because the oral presentation differed from the written one.

This history weighs on the current negotiations. Rae has said the Matawa Chiefs Council wants what the First Nations at Thompson got: a seat at the table. Meanwhile, as the talks drag on, the project has suffered a number of financial blows. In June 2013, Cliffs announced it was suspending environmental assessment work on the $3.3-billion Black Thor chromite development, which included a ferrochrome smelter in Sudbury, until the challenges were resolved. Then a smaller rival, KWG Resources, blocked Cliffs’s plans to build a $600-million road connecting the smelter to the chromite deposit. Finally, on November 20, 2013, Cliffs announced it was halting the project entirely, closing its offices in Thunder Bay and Toronto, and shutting down the exploration site. The company cited “risks associated with the development of necessary infrastructure” as one of the reasons it was abandoning a project in which it had invested $535 million.

Cliffs’s withdrawal is a wake-up call. This is what resource development is going to look like in the near future without comprehensive national and provincial strategies for infrastructure, environmental issues, and Aboriginal involvement. Every resource-based project in the country, from pipelines in British Columbia to fracking in New Brunswick, is going to encounter resistance from First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities, as well as from many non-Aboriginal communities. We need to act effectively, and to ensure benefits for all.

If the federal government had bought into Richard Rohmer’s vision from the start, the mid-Canada corridor would look very different today, beginning with infrastructure. Fifty years ago, it was still a government responsibility and, to a degree, priority. Now, it seems, there isn’t a government at any level that has the money for it. Infrastructure is incredibly expensive, and without a commercial imperative, a difficult sell.

But it’s not just infrastructure that governments have abandoned; they’ve abandoned leadership, as well. The government of Stephen Harper is a facilitator. It doesn’t spend money on northern infrastructure; its interest in policy tends to be narrow and ideological (gutting environmental law to pave the way for resource extraction, for example); and its record on Aboriginal concerns got off to an unfortunate start when it reneged on the Kelowna Accord, a Liberal initiative that had allocated $5 billion to First Nations education, housing, health services, and economic development (things haven’t improved much in the years since).

Canada was founded on bold action (David Thompson’s exploration of the West, Alexander Mackenzie’s push north) and big ideas (Confederation). But we have lost the appetite for both. The last big idea in nation-building was Clifford Sifton’s immigration policy under Wilfrid Laurier’s government a century ago, when a cheery, somewhat misleading campaign lured one million foreign settlers to the Prairies. Occasionally, we are pushed toward something larger (Expo 67, various Olympics), but for the most part we have come to settle for the “Peace, Order, and good Government” described in the British North America Act of 1867.

Good government, however, has become synonymous with good management. Courage isn’t prized, and we’ve paid a price for our caution. When it comes to infrastructure investment, planning, and urban development—activities that shaped the country at its founding—our caution has worked against us.

We are in need of a bold national vision, and the thoughtful development of the mid-Canada corridor certainly qualifies. Rohmer envisioned sustainable development, and if anything that’s even more desirable now than it was five decades ago. It would bring us prosperity. It would force us to be environmentally responsible. It would hasten the long-overdue respectful inclusion of First Peoples in Canadian society. It might even help us realize that elusive dream: meaningful national unity.

This appeared in the September 2014 issue.

John van Nostrand
John van Nostrand is an architect, an urban planner, and the founding principal of planningAlliance in Toronto.
Chris Brackley
Chris Brackley is the cartographer for Canadian Geographic, and co-owner of As the Crow Flies Cartography.