Back to the Future: The Evolution of Regional Planning in Canada’s North

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Whether land use planning in Canada’s north is judged successful is a matter of perspective, attitude and political expectation. Understanding the historical context provides clues for program improvement.
Regional planning is a decision support tool encompassing principles of transparency, inclusion and rational analysis. Resource use allocation choices among competing interests and values are made through reasoned research and public debate with the land use plan becoming the roadmap for individual and collective cooperative action.
Five events shaped northern land use planning. The discovery of oil and gas at Prudhoe Bay(1968) resulting in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (1971), the James Bay & Northern Quebec Agreement (1975), Berger Inquiry in 1977 and DIAND’s Northern Land Use Policy (1981) collectively influenced program design.
Canada managed northern lands with a “father knows best” attitude. Land use planning would be a top down process rooted in DIAND’s Ottawa headquarters. Instead of cooperation and coordination, the net results were positional battles, infighting and mistrust. The federal bureaucrats badly miscalculated where the territorial governments and indigenous people were coming from. There would be no power sharing so the process failed. Even the introduction of a shared Policy Advisory Committee in 1985 could not move planning forward. The program was still sidetracked by land claim negotiations, devolution discussions and mistrust. The process collapsed in 1990 but has since been resurrected in its latest form through settlement of most land claims and division of the Northwest Territories.
Despite hiccups, regional planning is proceeding and continues to evolve in all three territories. The initial “top-down”, centralized control model failed because of inequities in power, a lack of measurable objectives and the absence of a shared vision. A new partnership model is evolving creating a paradigm shift allowing for a more pragmatic, consensus driven, and ecosystem based approach to land and resource management.

Ian Robertson