Mines, Military and Money: What Experienced Officials See in the State of NWT


Stephen Van Dine has seen a lot up north, and he sees potential economic storm clouds on the horizon.

He began his career in Inuvik as the first branch manager of the Health Insurance Office and was also part of the then Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada regional office in Yellowknife.

After nearly three decades of public service, Van Dine said he has seen the evolution of many facets of the NWT. Now the economy seems to be in some danger. With the mining industry seemingly on the brink of extinction, rising defense spending and foreign interest in the North, Van Dine shared his thoughts and advice on the territory's future.

“The north is becoming much less isolated these days,” he said. “There is a lot of foreign direct investment interested in finding its way into the Canadian north, which may or may not be friendly.”

One of those direct investments Van Dine is talking about is China. Earlier this year, he wrote an article for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI), a public policy think tank based in Ottawa.

In it, he writes about China's recent efforts in the Canadian Arctic, such as acquiring existing reserves of the only rare earth minerals currently mined in Canada at the Nechalacho deposit.

“If you remove critical minerals from North America, you increase North America's dependence on the countries that actually have those critical minerals. So that creates a risk,” he explained. “If there are interests that are actively pursuing and trying to undermine the interests of Canada and North America, then I think the Northwest Territories probably want to pay attention.”

Van Dine reiterated his stance and also mentioned Canada's recent commitment to increase its defense spending by tens of billions of dollars. This rise is intended to defend Canada's Arctic and northern regions.

“This should be a pretty clear signal to people in the north that there is growing global interest in what is going on here,” he said.

Van Dine compared today to the Cold War when it comes to these concerns.

“I think we're returning to a time where we need to be aware of that history but also acknowledge how things have changed – and things have changed significantly.”

Changes include Russia's war against Ukraine and increased shipping traffic in the Arctic regions. Van Dine said Canada is probably only now becoming more aware of its Arctic defense needs. However, he has no immediate concerns that tensions could boil over.

“I don’t think Canada’s investments or the announcements [in defence spending]…suggests Canada will escalate tensions. That could happen in 25 years, but that is certainly not the situation we are in now.”

In the next few years, the downturn in the North's economy could have a much larger impact, affecting people's material lifestyles, he suggested.

“Things are not looking particularly rosy for the mining sector at the moment,” he said, adding that there needs to be a consistent set of messages from the GNWT to attract investors and ensure there is something else for the area to invest in could invest.

“If northern governments could come together and work a little more coherently and cooperatively with a common message, then I think that could go a long way in attracting investment,” Van Dine said.

And despite an uncertain and sometimes bleak outlook for the NWT's future, Van Dine said he still has high hopes overall.

“I think the people of the north have a tremendous future ahead of them,” he said. “Given the work Graeme Clinton has done, what the… [NWT & Nunavut] I believe the new territorial government is very excited about the economic opportunities.”