A report on economic opportunity in the Sahtu highlights the benefits of a more diversified economy across the entire NWT.
It extols the virtues of shifting subsidies and investments away from resource extraction and toward encouraging a mix of smaller-scale, local businesses. Its authors, consultants and researchers with Edmonton-and Victoria-based think tank Policy Link, argue however that the report is not about starting a war with the mining or oil and gas industries, but about warning of the dangers of a “silver bullet” mentality that has been prevalent in economic thinking across Canada for decades; the idea that a large factory or other industrial player will come in and save the day with hundreds or thousands of jobs.
“This is the approach being used by the NWT in relation to mineral and fossil fuel extraction,” the report reads. “The theory is that the public cost associated with these subsidies will be more than offset by the jobs and economic benefits. It is beyond the scope of this brief study to assess the fracking and oil and gas extraction industry … (but) in a context where revenues are limited, and climate change impacts are already being felt, choices need to be made about where to invest program and infrastructure support. There are clear trade-offs being made in the current industrial policy orientation.”
The advantages of “economic gardening,” by contrast, or growing the economy from the ground up with entrepreneurship, are many and varied.
“You put all of your eggs in one basket when you pick one sector as a winner,” co-author David Thompson said. “You need a lot of baskets and a lot of eggs.”
That sort of thinking is not exclusive to the NWT. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made similar comments during an appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland as he tried to distance himself from the Conservative approach.
“Diversity is the engine of invention,” he told the world leaders. Diversity isn’t just sound social policy, diversity is an economic driver. My predecessor wanted you to know Canada for its resources. Well, I want you to know Canadians for our resourcefulness. Our natural resources are substantial, and will always be a basis for the Canadian economy but Canadians also know that growth and prosperity isn’t just about what is under our feet, it’s about what is between our ears.”
The report, Economic Futures in the Sahtu Region, contains eye-popping statistics including an analysis showing the relative job creation potential of investing $1 million in a variety of sectors. Forestry/logging came out way ahead at 23.4 jobs, with oil and gas at the bottom at 0.5 jobs, and diamond mines not much better at 1.1. Fishing, hunting and trapping (15.9), transit and public transportation (13.7), arts and entertainment (13.3) and repair/maintenance (12.9) rounded out the top five.
The authors warned that the data used government multipliers for each sector’s relative job creation potential, and that they should be taken “with a grain of salt.”
Co-author Diana Gibson, a social scientist who has worked nationally and internationally on economic and public policy issues ranging from energy to healthcare and trade, said at a press conference held in Yellowknife Jan. 19 that the report was meant to stir discussion and act as a starting point toward building a more resilient NWT economy, making for healthier, happier and better-off residents.
Gibson said in strong, diversified economies studied elsewhere, social services costs are lower, public health and individual well-being is better and the environmental footprint is smaller since there are fewer products imported.
There is also a strong case for smaller businesses, which are more likely to spend locally and work in conjunction with local culture, rather than distancing residents from it.
It does not have to be all about economy-wide change, or creating a new renewable energy industry out of thin air. Small changes, like local food production, which has the potential to create income of $200,000 per year in the case of a small farm, or to increase a family’s spending power by reducing their household costs, can lead to big improvements.
“What we’re really talking about here is scale,” Gibson said. “We’re not starting from scratch here; it’s about building on and fostering the economic gardening that is already happening. There is loads of capacity that hasn’t been tapped. We need to use GNWT (and federal) policies to support that.”
The report has been circulated to leaders in the Sahtu including Grand Chief Wilfred McNeely, Sahtu Renewable Resources Board executive director Deb Simmons and program coordinators Joe Hanlon and Walter Bayha of the Sahtu Land and Water Board.
Former Fort Good Hope chief Arthur Tobac said he hopes the GNWT pursues job creation with renewable resource development “to support local stakeholders and not subsidize foreign stakeholders.”
Deline Land Corporation director Danny Bayha said elders should be included as communities move forward.
“The report provides an excellent starting place for Sahtu residents, parents, business leaders, educators and government to re-evaluate, discuss and debate their thoughts on the well-being of individuals and the community.”