Northern Canada is rich with natural resources. Yet communities face difficulties in retaining the wealth from their area’s natural resources.
Over time the wealth and jobs communities derive from these resources vary. Statistics Canada Community Profiles from 2006 captured unemployment rates as high as 75% in some northern communities. In 2011 the Human Resources and Skills Development Canada’s Labour Market Bulletin reported 9.2% unemployment rates for Canada’s territories compared to 6.7% for all of Canada during that same year.
Although resource extractive economies provide communities with periods of economic wealth, these same periods are later mirrored with busted local economies and dramatic unemployment rates. Structures lacking to retain community wealth in the long term are lacking.
Instead of investing strategically into communities, the majority of wealth is transient and funneled into southern Canada. In his 2009 paper on hinterland development, Dr. Sean Markey, Professor of Simon Fraser’s School of Resource and Environmental Management shows that nearly 70% of the British Columbia’s export wealth is derived from regions outside of the lower mainland.
In addition to economic strain, communities in northern regions are left to deal with environmental damage. Examples of this are common, and include over-logging on Haida Gwaii and forgotten tailing ponds in Nunavut.
To ensure that resource extractive industries support the long-term economic sustainability of people and their families, one solution is to develop financial mechanisms to retain capital in these communities. An example of what might look like is the development of a community fund, where a certain percentage of profit from resource extraction is invested into the community over the long term.
Re-thinking the North’s most precious resources
Without discounting the need for these models, I argue that establishing financial mechanisms such as these will be largely ineffective until we understand what our natural resources really are.
I’m not talking about fish, fuel, or forests, but rather people — young people to be exact.
Northern communities in Canada are doing a poor job with managing their human resources.
The talent, creativity, innovativeness, and local knowledge of young people disappear from communities as they migrate to urban centers.
In a 2001 article Dr. Christopher Bryant, Professor of Geography at the Université de Montréal indicates that communities in northern Canadian experience significant “talent drain” as young people leave their small northern and rural communities in pursuit of education and employment opportunities.
In many areas the impact and opinions of 18-30 year old demographic is absent. Could you imagine what Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal would look like if the millennials were missing?
In the North, the loss of young people, their drive, and stories of success keeps communities from going forward. The social, economic, and political geography of rural communities would look dramatically different if mechanisms were developed to successfully re-recruit and engage some of their most talented young people.
What the Harvard Business School can teach northern communities
Harvard University’s Business Schools prides itself in results. But what it counts as most important might be surprising. In their book on radical marketing techniques, Sam Hill and Glenn Rifkin outline that Harvard’s strategy to creating value relies on investing in, growing, and tracking their alumni network.
Realizing the potential for long-term social and economic benefit, Harvard has invested in their alumni in a big way by “…tracking their careers, their earning power, their families and their civic and social contributions.” According to Hill and Rifkin, Harvard’s alumni network is six times larger than it’s closest competitor. In this regard, Harvard’s brand of international excellence is built through the future success of its students.
Northern communities should take notes from Harvard’s approach and 1) Keep in touch with their young people and 2) conceptualize the young people who they’ve invested in, whether through community support, mentorship or scholarships, as their most precious outputs. Rethinking the North’s value model, or rather its brand, in terms of its people is vital for shifting the framework by which we develop solutions to the North’s economic, social, and environmental challenges.
A “Made in the North” solution
Currently processes which build community and connections between transient young professionals and the areas where they’re from are absent.
For the past year entrepreneurs from the North have been working on an initiative, Project Gwaii, named after their islands, which proposes a solution to the disconnect between talented young professionals and their communities.
Project Gwaii, takes a local-global approach to connection and community building and uses a multi-media storytelling platform to provide its communities with an opportunity to keep in touch with the young people who have left. By telling the success stories of these young people and using digital media, Project Gwaii’s vision is to broaden how communities define themselves and shift the myth that talent in these communities is lacking, or unemployable. “We’re developing a new way to re-engage young people in their communities. It’s almost like we’re hacking the rural,” says Patrick Shannon, graphic designer and Project Gwaii co-founder. The platform developed by Patrick will serve to facilitate a guided conversation on issues facing northern and rural communities.
In addition to being a recruitment tool for organizations that want to invest in locally developed talent, Project Gwaii is exploring the use of this platform as an e-mentoring model for teenagers growing up on the islands. “When I was growing up on Haida Gwaii, there were no obvious examples of people in the community who had been successful in my field,” says Patrick Shannon, “We think this could be a great tool to show youth from the islands that you can be successful, and look, here are five examples to prove it. Growing up in the North should be celebrated, not a hindrance,” he says.
Three reasons for more “local” engagement
If we improved our ability to engage young people in the communities where they’re from we could:
1) Develop solutions that are “Made in the North by Northerners”
In an argument for local control Dr. Ben Bradshaw, Professor of Geography at Guelph illustrates that local players are “able to react more swiftly to change” and benefit from local context, or as he states “familiarity of place is associated with an intimate and contextually grounded ecological knowledge. “
2) Increase the rate of employee retention in northern communities
Dr. Bradshaw suggests that local employees may have a greater reason to stay in these communities, as their social ties are greater and “…directly subject to the repercussions (economic, social, environmental) of their management decisions.”
3) Create new economies that go beyond resource extraction
Globally millenials are driving the conversation on innovation and creativity, as we can see with the growth of the world’s tech industry and increased demand for social innovations, like triple bottom-lined business and employment.
In a recent article, tech and media entrepreneur Michael Tippett argues that Canada has potential to move beyond a resource extractive industry by investing and developing the knowledge sector, which could include technology, entrepreneurship, and media initiatives. In northern communities Dr. Bryant notes that “The exodus of youth is also a withdrawal of potential entrepreneurial resources, particularly given the importance of small and medium sized businesses in the country’s economy in the past quarter century.” Bringing young people into these conversations is an important first step in developing a vision for how these communities will exist and thrive in the future.
Before the economic and social potential of communities can actualize, we need to re-examine the foundation by which these decisions and processes are being made. One way to do this in the North is by recreating technological and social connections between young people and their homes.
By doing so, we can go beyond resource extraction as the northern economies and develop economies of social innovation, creativity, and solutions that are better for the people and planet.