Opinion Social Policy

The trouble with remoteness

People have to move sometimes.

-Jean Chretien, former Prime Minister of Canada

In recent months, school shootings in La Loche and youth suicides in Attawapiskat have focused attention on the state of Indigenous communities in Northern Canada, prompting a prime ministerial visit, an emergency debate in Parliament, and plenty of video footage shot by camera crews far from the urban landscapes where they usually do their work.

In each case, the spotlight was brief, and the solutions seemingly as elusive as the situations were urgent. Communities with complex histories and power structures were introduced by single adjectives: “isolated” or, more often, “remote.” As if those words explained almost everything.

The pathological treatments of remoteness quickly followed.

Remoteness can be experienced as isolation, even as a trap; but it can also be a preference – a home.

One national magazine columnist, writing with a brave, unsentimental, metropolitan clarity – under a headline that promised the “hard truth about remote communities” – proposed that governments’ first priority should be to enable residents to “escape” from endemic violence, poverty, poor health, and despair.

His response to the Attawapiskat crisis in particular took the form of a pointed question for community members: “Does their right to live on a remote reserve supersede their children’s right to grow up in a healthy and viable community? Or even to just grow up?”

From this perspective, living in a remote community is not only proof of an unwillingness to confront root problems; it is the root problem. Short of out-migration, there can be no brighter future, only good money after bad, only band-aids, and surely more sad news to come.

The fiscal and ethical case against remoteness is neither new nor made exclusively about Indigenous communities. People in rural Canada whose livelihoods depend on farming, fishing, and forestry have heard the economists’ message to “move to where the jobs are” whenever times are tough.

More than two decades ago, the Globe and Mail’s editor-in-chief wrote that parents commit a “profoundly aggressive act” against their own children by raising them in rural and remote places, where their horizons and career prospects will be limited; it was immoral, in turn, for public policy to encourage such choices.

Historically, of course, Canadian governments have not always been averse to remoteness. On the contrary, they have promoted it to serve nation-building purposes. The settlement of the prairie west for agriculture – the National Policy of the late 19th century – required the construction of rudimentary infrastructure to deliver and support immigrants recruited from across an ocean to live in frontier settings. Later, resource boomtowns were built in shield and forest map-points at the end of long, thin ribbons of road or track.

In the 1950s, most egregiously, the federal government relocated Inuit families from northern Quebec to the high Arctic in order to bolster Canadian claims to effective sovereignty. The Inuit were left to fend for themselves, without any real right of return, in one of the world’s most extreme environments for human habitation. Perhaps surprisingly, after so much hardship and adaptation, some of their descendants still live in the communities of Grise Fiord and Resolute.

So what is remoteness, and why is it so problematic?

At its most neutral, remoteness is simply a matter of distance. It is both relative – remote from what? for whom? – and dynamic. It varies over time as economies, political boundaries, and means of communication and transport change. Fort Chipewyan, the oldest continuous settlement in Alberta, was an important river hub at the height of the Northern fur trade; now it lacks an all-season road. Was it remote then? Now?

Remoteness as distance is the reality of a big country. Certainly it presents challenges across the North around such basic requirements as health, education, food, housing, and energy.

When children struggle in cities, as they do, opinion-leaders do not demand that governments facilitate a mass migration to the countryside.

In particular places, remoteness can be experienced as isolation, even as a trap; but it can also be a preference – a home. Either way, it shapes how people live, who they know themselves to be, what they contend with, what they need to know, and how they leave and return over time.

The alternative to thinking creatively and differently about the challenges presented by remoteness as distance is that we all simply default to large, southern cities. In such a future, what lies beyond the last sidewalk will be a mix of resource plantations and utility corridors, wilderness and resort playgrounds – all places where people live transiently, never long enough to know them well, or care for them, and mostly to generate economic value for shareholders somewhere else. The ecological risks inherent in such a spatial resolution should alone give us pause. 

Curiously, when shootings happen in downtown shopping malls or suburban schools, columnists with national media platforms do not describe them as the inevitable outcome of crowding so many people into noisy asphalt-and-steel urban matrices without much opportunity to develop the skills for self-reliance or the character for self-restraint. When children struggle in cities, as they do, opinion-leaders do not demand that governments facilitate a mass migration to the countryside. That would offend common sense.   

But what is at issue here is precisely the real-time reproduction of common sense – the mostly unexamined cultural meanings that define what is normal, permissible, fearful, unimaginable. Since most Canadians only sing about the true North, strong and free, and maybe wear the t-shirts, common-sense pathologies are rarely complicated by experience in real Northern communities.

The current fixation with remoteness signifies something more than mere distance. It comes out of a powerful story in which remoteness – specifically, remoteness from major centres – is the equivalent of deprivation. It signifies insufficiency, backwardness, undomesticated nature. It is the diminishing value of local knowledge. It is not viable. Remoteness is the apparent refusal to accept the constitutive elements of modern life: its convenience, economies of scale, and divisions of labour. As if it is necessary to choose one or the other. 

The fixation takes on its full intensity when the word remote is invoked either in place of, or together with, other words like reserve or First Nations or Indigenous.

As a substitute, remote sometimes serves as polite, non-racialized code for ideas too raw for public discourse. Better to talk about remote communities. We know what that means.

As an adjective, remote has the effect of putting Indigenous Peoples’ political goals for land-based self-determination – which are well-advanced in parts of the territorial North – into the category of the impractical, the quixotic. Better to be realistic. We know what a proper government looks like and where it ought to be.

There are surely real problems in La Loche, Attawapiskat, and communities across Northern Canada. They cause real suffering. They persist for reasons that are reasonably debated by those with a stake in their future.   

The danger with common-sense pathologies, however, including the pathology of remoteness, is that they make everyone a practitioner with the confidence to prescribe a cure and tempt politicians in remote capitals, tired of headline tragedies, into thinking they should deliver it.

Photo: Girls in Whati, a fly-in community in the Northwest Territories. Credit: Meagan Wohlberg

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