A polar bear stands on a ice flow in Baffin Bay above the arctic circle as seen from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS

Stand-alone northern minister says Arctic issues too many for him to stand alone

Canada’s first stand-alone minister of northern affairs says he’ll be doing anything but standing alone.

“The way I look at it, my ministry is responsible for all of those issues — environment, transportation, resource development — but for the North,” said Dan Vandal, the Manitoba member of Parliament who heads the first ministry in the country’s history to be focused on the Arctic.

“We do that by working closely with other ministers.”

Canada has had some sort of northern affairs ministry for decades, but it’s always been wrapped in with other areas such as resource development or Indigenous concerns. Vandal is Canada’s first Minister of Northern Affairs, full stop.

The ministry is unique in that it addresses a region, not a subject. That means for almost every one of the priorities expressed by northerners, such as a route into the resource-rich central Arctic or improvements to health care, Vandal will have to work with the department in charge of building roads or funding hospitals.

“It’s the sort of portfolio where it touches on so many different things,” he said in an interview with The Canadian Press. “Those all have stand-alone ministries and I’m a stand-alone minister, so I need to develop protocols on how we’re going to tackle these things.”

There’s a lot of working together to be done.

In the dying days of their last mandate, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals released an Arctic policy framework that was widely seen as lacking specific policy direction. Vandal said meat on the bones is coming.

“The framework is a priority.”

Pressed on what’s important to him, Vandal mentioned Nutrition North — a federal program subsidizing northern grocers to reduce food costs that has been called ineffective.

“I want to make sure those programs are properly rolled out so we do a better job of making sure people up there get basic nutrition. That’s incredibly foundational,” he said.

“I want to make sure that Nutrition North is as effective as it possibly can be. I want to make sure the budgets are adequate.”

Vandal also brought up post-secondary education. Although Yukon is to open a university next spring, access to degree-granting programs in the rest of the Arctic is limited.

And infrastructure everywhere is important to the government, but especially in the North, he said.

“We know there’s not a lot. Base infrastructure’s necessary for resource projects to go forward, so I’m going to certainly make those a priority.”

Vandal said he wants his priorities set by northerners. Lots of meetings with territorial premiers and Indigenous leaders are in the offing.

“Before I get too prescriptive — this is doable, that’s doable — I need to do some more of my work on the ground level with the people that live in the area.”

He also promises to consult with Arctic MPs. Two — Larry Bagnell and Michael McLeod — are Liberals, while Mumilaaq Qaqqaq is a New Democrat.

Priorities are great, but they all need funding. Budget talks are underway and Vandal knows he needs to get an Arctic oar in early.

“I need to make sure northern priorities are reflected in the budget if we want to get things done.”

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