Northern Sask. leader says proposed $100B Northern Corridor would 'open up the north'

A northern Saskatchewan leader says a proposed Northern Corridor across Canada would "definitely benefit" the province's north.

The concept was put forward by researchers at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy in a 2016 paper.

The proposal consists of a $100-billion, 7,000-kilometre national right-of-way in Canada's north and near north for possible road, rail, pipeline, electricity and communication infrastructure.

Bruce Fidler is the mayor of Creighton, Sask. and the chair of New North, an advocacy group that represents northern Saskatchewan municipalities.

Fidler said the proposal would "open up the north" and improve the economy.

"You know, with the loss of jobs and the uranium mines shutting down, the economy in the north is on a down-slope right now," Fidler said. "So I mean something of this nature would really be an economic boom for jobs while construction is going on, for tourism later on."

Fidler said the concept was discussed briefly at a recent New North board meeting and they will likely have more discussions on it in a couple of weeks.

"I realize that it's a number of years down the road," he said. "But I think it would definitely be a benefit for the north and I believe there would be a lot of interest there."

If this corridor was to take place, I would hope that the provincial government then would be able to improve the already existing roads so that there would be adequate access to the corridor. - Creighton mayor and New North chair Bruce Fidler

The University of Calgary research paper proposing the corridor identified benefits for northern communities, including an increased standard of living through reduced costs of living, but also outlined "several potential concerns."

"The Northern Corridor would significantly change living in the north and near north, as those areas become more accessible and, as such, more integrated into the rest of the economy," the paper noted.

"Perhaps the biggest concern about the building of a Northern Corridor and, with it, increased economic activity in the north and near north, is the potential negative impact on the environment," it said. "In this context, the word environment goes beyond the natural ecology of the affected areas and extends to the traditional way of life of Indigenous peoples."

"Well, it's definitely going to create some opposition," Fidler said. "There would have to be a lot of consultation taking place, both with municipalities and Indigenous people, as well, because they are the ones that live there and they rely on the land for their livelihood and sustenance."

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Fidler also said he hopes the construction of the Saskatchewan portion of the corridor would result in an upgrade of the province's northern highway network.

"There's a large number of northern roads and highways that are in dire need of improvement," Fidler said. "If this corridor was to take place, I would hope that the provincial government then would be able to improve the already existing roads so that there would be adequate access to the corridor."

When asked for its position on the Northern Corridor proposal, Saskatchewan's Ministry of Highways said in a statement it is "an interesting concept" that would be led by the federal government if it did become a reality.

"There would be significant work necessary before something of this magnitude could proceed, including extensive environmental assessment, involvement of First Nations and Mé​tis communities and stakeholders ... and extensive private sector investment," the statement said. 

Lead researcher Dr. Jennifer Winter said she wants to discuss with potentially affected communities, including "a discussion of what level of development is appropriate and the trade-off between infrastructure development and keeping our environment pristine."

However, she said there are some common themes in preliminary conversations she has had with northern Saskatchewan residents about the proposal.

"I recall from conversations that the focus is on infrastructure that will improve quality of life," Winter said. "So that's essentially roads and electrification for northerners." 

In a study released last year, the Standing Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce endorsed the Northern Corridor proposal, urging the federal government to provide $5 million for researchers to complete their study of the concept.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau told a committee meeting earlier this month the researchers were welcome to apply for funds, on a co-funded basis, through the federal government's National Trade Corridors Fund.

Contingent on being fully funded, Winter has estimated the proposal could be ready to present to government by 2024 for a decision.