Northwest Territories' Fur and Fiber Optics Make Asian Inroads

Coming soon to Inuvik: Fiber optics and roads - while furs head out. Photo: David Adamec / WikiCommons
Coming soon to Inuvik: Fiber optics and roads – while furs head out. Photo: David Adamec / WikiCommons

The media tends to view Asian activities in the Arctic with a wary eye. China, and to a lesser extent Japan and South Korea, are seen as undesirably intruding on northern territory. Yet it’s often the case that the representatives of Arctic governments are endeavoring to directly sell their products to Asia. In January of this year, that’s exactly what happened when a delegation from the Northwest Territories (NWT), Canada led by the territory’s Premier, Bob Macleod, and Minister of Industry, Tourism and Investment, David Ramsay, traveled to China and Japan. The delegation’s goal was to increase Asian interest in NWT luxury products, specifically diamonds and furs, and northern travel – namely what Ramsay called “our territory’s Aurora industry.” He noted in his update to the Speaker of the NWT’s Legislative Assembly: “To that end, we showcased our fur and diamonds in foremost international fashion venues like the 41st Annual Fur and Leather Show in Beijing and the International Jewellery Fair in Tokyo.”

Furs and diamonds

That Canada is still selling furs, both farmed and wild, should come as no surprise to people who follow Arctic affairs. At the territorial level, the Government of the NWT runs a certification and marketing program to promote furs caught by local harvesters. At the national level, last March, Minister of Health Leona Aglukkaq (and former Minister for the Arctic Council) announced $51,200 in funding to help diversify the NWT and Nunavut’s fur markets in Beijing and Istanbul. And internationally, the Canadian government’s strong support of its country’s fur industry has also affected its foreign policy. Beginning in 2008, Canada sought to defer the European Union’s admission as an observer to the Arctic Council on the basis of its opposition to importing Canadian furs. An accord was finally reached between the two in October 2013, when the EU decided to grant an exemption to indigenous-sourced furs. (The EU is still not an observer, however, due to Russian opposition at the 2015 ministerial.)

Of course, diamonds are the major revenue-earning product for the NWT, with production valued at $2.1 billion in 2011. Many indigenous peoples are directly employed by the diamond industry, and a report by the NWT & Nunavut Chamber of Mines (though clearly a biased organization) determined: “Over the period of 1996 to 2002, real employment income per person (measured in 2002 constant dollars) in the communities directly impacted by the diamond mining industry rose 79%, from $7,323 to $13,099. In contrast, employment income per person in the NWT rose only 4%.”

But furs still generate substantial incomes for many of the territory’s 43,595 residents, with wild fur alone generating CAN $2.7 million in 2013. That may seem like a drop in the bucket, as it equates to only approximately 1/1000 of a percent of diamond production. When a fox fur is worth hundreds of dollars, however, that represents a lot of money to the trapper – enough to perhaps feed his or her family for a brief while. The Government of the NWT states that some 40% of NWT residents over the age of 15 engage in traditional trapping, fishing, or hunting. For fur trappers, then, the desire amongst many of China’s wealthy for furs is welcome news. Interest in furs in China is nothing new, as I have written before: since the seventeenth century and well into the nineteenth century, Chinese aristocrats, like their European counterparts were wearing furs imported from the Arctic. It’s just that whereas the fashion fell out of favor in many European capitals, it’s still going strong – and increasing rapidly – in China. Attendance at this year’s Beijing Fur Fair shot up by 35% compared to last year, with most of the growth coming from domestic attendees.

Fiber optics and satellites

The NWT delegation’s business in China and Japan took them beyond furs and diamonds. Premier Bob MacLeod and Minister Ramsay also met with members of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to further previous discussions about the Mackenzie Valley Fiber Optic Link, on which construction began in January of this year, and enhancing the existing Inuvik Satellite Station Facility. This station opened in 2010 as the result of collaboration between the Government of Canada, the German Aerospace Center, and PrioraNetCanada.

High tech industries in the Arctic, like fiber optics and outer space, represent promising avenues for northern development that are not premised on the extraction and export of non-renewable. Fiber optics can also bring direct benefits to northern residents aside from just increased revenues. While a lot of internet service in the Canadian Arctic is provided by radio or satellite, faster broadband internet would be able to open more doors for activities such as tele-medicine and online education. Both of these sectors could deliver a lot to the region, too, considering the long distances and expensive travel required to get to hospitals and universities at present. Fiber optic connections could also attract Internet companies to set up server farms there due to the cool climes, which reduce the need for heating expenditures. They could also, of course, benefit the oil, gas, and mining companies in the Arctic, facilitating the speed at which they do business.

The Arctic-based space industry is another possible route for Arctic development that doesn’t depend entirely on minerals. There is a real need for increased satellite coverage of the Arctic in order to provide information on everything from weather to sea ice to search and rescue. In order to put these satellites into orbit, Arctic locations have an advantage in that, depending on weather and other conditions, they can be ideal places for both launching polar-orbiting satellites and for basing ground stations that receive and interpret data from the satellites above. So far, Sweden has pursued this sector more than any other Arctic nation. Within Kiruna, perhaps best known for its enormous iron mine, is the Swedish Institute of Space Physics, and outside the northern city of Kiruna, sits the Esrange Space Center, billed as “the largest civil ground station for satellites in the world and Europe’s largest overland test range for aerospace vehicles.” Additionally, for some time, Spaceport Sweden, a private company that is partnering with Virgin Galactic, has been trying to ramp up interest in creating a European hub for space tourism in Kiruna. Sweden isn’t the only player in the Arctic space game, though. Alaska Aerospace Corporation also has a facility south of Kodiak, called Pacific Spaceport Complex, that has launched several satellites. Their motto? “From the last frontier to the final frontier.”

The Government of the NWT sent a fact-finding mission to Kiruna and Munich in 2013. They concluded, as laid out in their mission report, that “the long term consistency of the satellite and space based activities in Kiruna provides a stable economic base that complements the variability in the mining sector in northern Sweden.” For their part, the Swedish Space Corporation and the German Space Agency, which both operate satellite antennae in Inuvik, determined that constructing a fiber optic link to the northern town via the Mackenzie Valley will be the real key to expanding the NWT’s space activities. The CAN $82-million fiber optic link should be complete by the middle of next year – a parallel precursor to the all-weather road that should, by 2017 or 2018, permanently link Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean. Interestingly, in the next couple of years, Inuvik will therefore have greatly expanded connectivity both north and south. The southern fiber optic cable will also perhaps pave the way for Japan’s JAXA to contribute to the Inuvik Satellite Station Facility. This would represent yet another step forward into the Arctic for the Asian nation. It’s important to remember, however, that much of the time, Arctic countries, provinces, and territories that have reached out to Asian and European nations for cooperation – be it in the way of trade, tourism, or science.

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