Why we should shape our own future guided by our northern lights

PAT CARNEY May 1 1970

Why we should shape our own future guided by our northern lights

PAT CARNEY May 1 1970

Why we should shape our own future guided by our northern lights

PAT CARNEY

CURLED UP IN a chair in Yellowknife’s only penthouse apartment, watching the moonlight glisten on the frozen surface of Great Slave Lake, I listened to two Arctic buddies discuss ways of building air strips in the north and learned something about sovereignty. Sovereignty is important — and northerners know that better than anyone. But the sovereignty issue must never be permitted to mask our main objectives in the north. Enjoying the euphoria of good Scotch and good company, I thought of three priorities:

□ DEVELOPMENT FUNDS. I have two friends who would never have made company president in the south because neither finished high school. But one is probably the world’s authority on operating in the high Arctic, and he is not yet 30. The other, only a few years older, leads another important technical field. Impatient with equipment and techniques evolved years ago in the south, both worked out new ways of operating in the Arctic, building a priceless inventory of technology. Both are anxious and likely to make their first million dollars, not because either gives a damn about money but because in the north capital to do more things is always scarce.

□ MORE JOBS. That afternoon I had visited Isadore Sangris, who was drying caribou meat on the towel rack behind his oil stove while his sons hunted. Later, we walked out to inspect the community’s water hole, chipped out the clear prism of lake ice. More than half the people who live in the Northwest Territories are Indian, Eskimo or Métis, and often

their priorities are such basic necessities as a water system, central showers, a school. Half the population of the Territories is under 21, and these kids must be educated and equipped to compete with other Canadians, in a very short time. Conditions are improving; the infant death rate in the Territories dropped from 111 per 1,000 births in 1961 to 60.9 in 1968, compared with the national rate of 23.1. It’s got some way to go.

□ BETTER AIRSTRIPS. On my flight up from Edmonton our pilot was Jim Tomlinson; our first trip together was on a DC-4, loaded with freight and groceries and oil crews, in the Arctic islands. Now Jim is flying a Boeing jet, but he told me he couldn’t land it at Cambridge Bay and Resolute because the snowpacked surfaces of their gravel strips were smooth as a skating rink.

Still, northern conversations can frequently return to sovereignty, for sovereignty is also that old-fashioned concept, a sense of country. The sight of the tanker Manhattan lying in the familiar channels off Resolute last fall and flying no flags, deeply offended me, somehow, and I was sickened by the thought of oil slicks on the shingle beaches where I have picked daisies by the azure summer surf. And to be sovereign you must also be effective and firm.

There is a lot of romantic nonsense written about the north, and the Northern Lights and the Polar Sea and the Midnight Sun must be balanced against the hostile cold, the litter exposed by the melting snow, the mosquitoes in summer and the isolation most northerners face. But I could not help thinking, gazing out at that moonlit snowscape, the north can inspire in many of us a consuming, burning passion. It represents nearly half our country, and all 21 million of us can shape it to reflect what we are. What other country in the world is so blessed? □