North of the 53rd parallel in Manitoba is home to urban, rural and remote communities, nestled among breathtaking wilderness and stunning scenery rich in natural resources. Approximately 90,000 people call Northern Manitoba home, according to 2016 Census data, which represents just over seven per cent of the province’s population—and 67 per cent of Manitoba’s land area.
According to the Communities Economic Development Fund (CEDF), a Manitoba Crown Corporation in operation since 1973, Northern Manitoba is a region in decline, having suffered significant job losses in key industries as well as anchor companies around which infrastructure and communities have been built and are reliant.
But Northern Manitoba is also primed for investment, home to several key industries that are ready for expansion and holds the potential for new industries to make their entrance into the province.
In 2019, the Manitoba government named CEDF the organization to facilitate the Look North Initiative, a long-term vision and plan first established in 2016 for northerners, by northerners—of whom nearly 75 per cent self-identify as Indigenous—with the goal to grow the economy in Northern Manitoba and unleash the economic potential of the north for generations to come.
“Many Indigenous communities have traditional territories rich in natural resources but haven’t been able to fully benefit from their economic potential,” said Natural Resources and Northern Development Minister Greg Nesbitt earlier this summer. “The process of reconciliation involves addressing this disparity and working towards a more equitable distribution of our natural resource wealth.”
Nesbitt’s comments were in reference to the Manitoba government and seven First Nations signing agreements in a pilot program to share wealth generated by Manitoba’s forests, improving the economic and social wellbeing of Indigenous communities.
“Advancing economic reconciliation in Manitoba means sharing the wealth generated by our natural resources with First Nations,” said Premier Heather Stefanson during the announcement. “This wealth opens new opportunities for economic growth, job creation and community development that will build a strong, healthy province for all Manitobans.”
The Manitoba government is sharing 45 per cent of the dues collected for timber harvested in proximity to each First Nation from Jan. 1, 2022, to June 30, 2024.
“Our government is proud to sign these collaborative partnerships to ensure the sustainable development of our forests, support Indigenous-led economic development and promote self-determination for Indigenous Peoples,” said Nesbitt during the announcement.
Sustainability is also a critical factor in the economic development of Northern Manitoba, both in terms of environmental sustainability as well as the sustainability of industries, with ample opportunities for businesses.
For example, in a venture announced earlier this summer, CEDF and the Manitoba government partnered with Canadian Kraft Paper Industries Ltd. (CKP), a pulp and paper mill in The Pas, to explore opportunities for transitioning to a greener economy in Northern Manitoba.
With the support of a $90,000 grant from the Manitoba government, $75,000 grant from the CEDF and $130,000 investment from CKP, CKP will assess options for enhancing the use of biomass (like logs, wood chips, bark and sawdust) to generate energy at the mill. A biomass-based fuel alternative would help replace fossil fuel, resulting in less greenhouse-gas emissions and increasing the long-term viability of the facility.
Other prominent companies working in manufacturing and processing in Northern Manitoba include Louisiana-Pacific, Vale Canada and the Global Aerospace Centre for Icing and Environmental Research (GLACIER). GLACIER is one of the largest gas turbine engine icing test facilities in the world and part of a public-private partnership, owned and operated jointly by Pratt & Whitney, Rolls Royce and the National Research Council Canada’s Aerospace Research Centre.
Driving investment and economic success—like the above examples and future opportunities like them—requires maintaining, updating and developing infrastructure throughout Northern Manitoba. Northern communities also depend on reliable infrastructure to support their basic needs.
Since September 2021, the Manitoba government has invested $2.1 million across 35 projects to improve infrastructure in several northern communities. The government also provided $5.1 million in 2021 for capital projects like waste disposal site upgrades, water treatment plant dehumidifiers and water intake modification projects.
“This investment supports a number of critical projects, including roads and water treatment plant upgrades, that will ensure Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents have access to infrastructure that supports a better quality of life and more resilient communities,” said Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations Minister Eileen Clarke earlier this summer.
However, the Look North Report and Action Plan indicated that infrastructure like all-weather roads, rail, air and broadband is still underdeveloped in the region and requires future planning, community consultation and investment.
Infrastructure is paramount to northern prosperity and the key barrier to infrastructure development is cost justification; there currently isn’t enough data to quantify how much the lack of infrastructure increases other costs and its social and economic impact. According to the report, Northern Manitoba needs a more detailed cost/benefit analysis across multiple sectors of interest to identify, prioritize and justify areas for investment. For its next steps, the Look North Initiative plans to convene a cross-sector and community working group to explore infrastructure options analysis, and then work with government to build the business case for long-term infrastructure plans that provide return on investment.
As the Look North Initiative says, “A prosperous north means a prosperous province.”
Northern Manitoba holds enormous potential that is best understood and realized by the people who live there and supported by government and other stakeholders. The economic success of northern communities and Indigenous groups will have positive implications that extend province wide.