Kelly Ogle: A ‘northern corridor’ to put Canada back on the map

Could a mega project like the Canadian Northern Corridor provide a bold, new approach to unlock the potential of our renewable and non-renewable resource base?

A map of a proposed route for the Canadian Northern Corridor. PHOTO BY JENNIFER WINTER/THE SCHOOL OF PUBLIC POLICY, UNIVERSITY OF CALGARY/CC BY-SA 4.0

Alberta wants a fair deal from Canada, but can’t seem to get one. Should it build a firewall? Stop trying? Separate? This is one of a series of opinion pieces adapted from the new book, “Moment of Truth: How to Think About Alberta’s Future,” in which some of Canada’s most respected thinkers on the subject debate what the best next steps are for Alberta — and for Canada.

For more than a decade, resource developers and utilities have struggled with all levels of government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to build critical infrastructure. The concept of multi-modal right of way corridors has been raised as a potential solution and given today’s challenges, the idea is worth revisiting, especially given the challenges Alberta is facing in Confederation.

A central Canadian resource and transportation corridor is not a new idea. In 1970, author Richard Rohmer published “The Green North,” which posited a grand plan to settle a “second Canada” below the Arctic. “Mid-Canada” would have new highways, railways and booming resource-based metropolises. Although Rohmer’s dream failed to be actualized, it presents a swath of questions and potential opportunities. Does the current circumstance offer an opportunity to usher in a new era of Canadian public/private infrastructure development? What about enormous, multi-decade infrastructure projects such as the Canadian Northern Corridor?

In the spring of 2016, Kent Fellows and Andrei Sulzenko of the University of Calgary published a paper clarifying some of the numerous potential benefits: a significantly more efficient and reliable transportation system; re-establishing our competitiveness in global markets; a major positive impact on growth and jobs at the local, regional and national levels; the rationalization of Canada’s overall transportation system and easing congestion in the southern portion; diversifying export markets; enhancing Canada’s negotiating leverage in international trade and commercial relations; and promoting Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.

The Canadian Northern Corridor would be a major public-private, nation-building initiative, with governments exercising their authorities to set policy frameworks and related legislative/regulatory regimes, tax/expenditure programs and Aboriginal engagement. The Fellows and Sulzenko paper got the attention of the standing Senate committee on banking, trade and commerce, which recommended funding further study.

Sulzenko and Fellows suggested that the capital cost of the proposed Canadian Northern Corridor could be as much as $100 billion and would be funded by the private sector, as well as by the federal and provincial/territorial governments. Potential sources of private financing could include corporations, private equity funds, pension funds and sovereign wealth funds.

Could a mega project like the Canadian Northern Corridor provide a bold, new approach to unlock the potential of our renewable and non-renewable resource base? Creating a multi-modal road, rail, pipeline, data and electricity generation and transmission, air and seaport linkage, if you will, of Canada’s multi-faceted existing and potential resource base to the rest globe. Since the committee’s recommendation, there has been substantial activity including but not limited to a revised and updated scoping paper to better situate the corridor concept in the current environment. Although the magnitude of such a project is daunting, the work being conducted at the U of C stands as clear evidence that further study of a Canadian Northern Corridor is warranted. The development of the northern corridor could lead to a multi-decade 21st-century nation-building exercise.

During the Second World War, E.P. Taylor was one of Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s volunteer executives, a “dollar a year man.” He was appointed by C. D. Howe, the minister of munitions and supply, to the executive committee of the Department of Munitions and Supply. Through his wartime service, Taylor became connected to top businessmen from across Canada and around the world. During the next decade he gained control or had significant positions in many of his country’s largest companies. During the highest point of his career, he was one of Canada’s richest people.

The long-term global ramifications of COVID-19 demands the nation pull together to return to prosperity and safety, not unlike the efforts of Taylor, Howe and others during the Second World War. The present federal government believes that it can spend its way out of the pandemic and “build back better.” That is noble, but fraught with fiscal danger. Moreover, attitudinal change, beginning at the federal level, is required.

It is time for the current cohort of Canadian industrialists, especially those who have this government’s ear, the Irvings, McCains, Desmarais, Westons, Grahams, Richardsons, Edwards and Pattisons — to convince this government that the private sector needs to lead this charge.

Without question, a corridor approach would need multi-level discussion as to how to implement it in a federal system and would also require enormous public/private co-operation at all levels. Aggressive use of the resource sector as leverage can also provide a catalyst for effective public spending on a once-in-a-lifetime, multi-generational opportunity to put Canada back on the map.

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