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Harper Stands on Guard in the Arctic

August 29, 2008

Stephen Harper has just concluded a trip to the Canadian north, during which he announced several new measures dealing with northern affairs in general and the problem of maintaining Arctic sovereignty in particular. Ships passing through the northwest passage will now be obliged to register with the Canadian Coast Guard. The scope of the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act will be expanded to cover waters up to 200 nautical miles offshore. A long-simmering infrastructure project called the McKenzie Valley gas pipeline will now, inshallah, be pushed to completion in short order. A new icebreaker, the John G. Diefenbaker, will be in service by 2017. Perhaps most importantly, $100 million will be spent over five years on a project to map the Arctic’s mineral resources.

It’s hard to say how many of these ambitious plans for the Arctic will actually be realised, especially with a probable election looming. Icebreaker purchases and pipeline projects can always be cancelled. The NDP also had a point when they accused Harper of neglecting the day-to-day concerns of northern residents, such as roads and housing. Local communities confronted with disintegrating sea ice and starving polar bears would probably appreciate a bit more commitment to tackling climate change, too. Even so, mapping minerals and patrolling the north are important and necessary steps. The Arctic is rich in resources, the Northwest Passage is likely to become an important shipping route as northern waters grow more accessible, and four other powers – Russia, Denmark, Norway, and the United States – are sniffing around the region. Harper is absolutely right in believing that the best way to assert our territorial claims is to establish a stronger presence, both military and civilian.

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Arctic Canada twice, during the summer months. In both cases I was there to hunt for fossils on southern Ellesmere Island, and the expeditions eventually recovered the remains of a strange creature called Tiktaalik, a transitional form between fishes and ancient amphibians. The Arctic is full of surprises and buried treasures, scientific and otherwise – and in my opinion, it’s well worth defending from the encroachments of rival nations.

In other news, Mark Mardell of the BBC and Adrian Hamilton of the Independent both have very incisive pieces on the conflict between Russia and Georgia. And I should have more to say about climate change fairly soon.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Scott Y permalink
    September 4, 2008 3:49 am

    Just a thought, but on the topic of trans-Arctic rail lines, it seems to me that Sweden, Norway and Russia have significant percentages of their populations in their respective Arctic regions. In their cases, sizable populations in the ‘Arctic’ region of their country could lead to Arctic rail lines.

    In Sweden and Norway’s case, corresponding political representation from above the Arctic circle could lead to increased transportation links. Whereas in Canada’s case, we have one MP from each territory and one Senator, so very little political weight there. In the case of Russia, it may be population-based reasoning, but at least in the case of Murmansk, there are obviously strategic reasons left over from the Cold War.

    My point is that relatively, Canada has a very very small percentage of our population above the Arctic Circle. Most of us lived pressed against the US Border, so there is very little political impetus to build an Arctic railroad. I think a decent case can be made that the reason why Canada doesn’t have trans-Arctic railways is more geographic and population-based rather than lack of conscious intent on the part of a federal government. I have no empirical evidence to back up my hypothesis, but it seems logical to me…

  2. corsullivan permalink*
    September 2, 2008 9:30 pm

    Thanks everyone for the comments, which are insightful and thought-provoking as usual.

    Although it’s true that we don’t have any rail lines extending above the Arctic Circle, we do have rail links to Churchill, Manitoba (on Hudson Bay) and a couple of smaller northern ports. This means that goods can be shipped by rail to our northern shoreline, and then proceed by boat. I don’t think (although I could be wrong) that the terrain prohibits rail lines from extending further north – I suspect it’s just not economical. Still, it’s probably an idea that’s well worth considering as the Arctic opens up.

    Sarah Palin is a bit of lightweight, and she’s applying for a relatively lightweight job – U.S. vice presidents typically aren’t very powerful in their own right, although Cheney has been an obvious exception. Still, I don’t think Palin’s views on the Arctic, or much else, will be terribly important unless (1) McCain and her win the election, and (2) McCain subsequently dies in office. In that case we’ll have “interesting times in Canada-US relations”, indeed. I haven’t noticed much discussion of Arctic issues in the U.S. campaign so far, but maybe I just haven’t been paying enough attention.

    I agree with Zandernat that the plan to change the focus of the Coast Guard may well not survive the coming election. On the other hand, I don’t think moving from a pure SAR/science focus to one that also incorporates defense of sovereignty is necessarily a bad thing. If our Coast Guard personnel can help us keep control over our Arctic waters then they’ll be very “good guys” indeed, from a Canadian viewpoint.

    I was able to find statements on the Arctic on the Green, Liberal and NDP websites, with a bit of digging. The Greens seem to have the most distinctive position: not surprisingly, they focus strongly on the environment, accusing Harper of fiddling like Nero while the Arctic melts. It’s a clever allusion with a large grain of truth. Beyond that, they agree with both the Liberals and the NDP that improved northern infrastructure and other civilian projects should be priorities. The Liberals say that “a military presence is required but is far from enough”; the NDP accuse Harper of a “one-dimensional, militaristic approach”; and the Green Party statement I read didn’t mention the military dimension at all.

    Personally, I think confronting climate change and improving northern infrastructure are indeed important. But the military have a unique and indispensable role in preserving our sovereignty in the north, and in my opinion Harper – as much as I dislike many of his other policies – deserves credit for recognising this.

  3. Scott Y permalink
    September 1, 2008 11:01 pm

    Does anybody know anything about Layton, Dion or May’s position on the Arctic? In my opinion, Harper’s posturing is predictably belligerent, but I’m not at all clear on what the other national parties are saying over the Arctic. I can only suppose that Michael Byers’ position is closely mirrored by the NDP, but other than that, very little knowledge.

  4. zandernat permalink
    September 1, 2008 2:39 pm

    The changing dynamic of the Coast Guard is also an issue here. These new icebreakers will serve as platforms for the navy, RCMP and border officials to carry weapons off. While not the first time, it marks a shift away from the pure ‘Search and Rescue’ (SAR) or scientific focuses of current Coast Guard missions. In contrast with the armed military Guard of our neighbour, we’ve held on to the notion of being the good guys there to save lives.

    I had the chance to crew a CG SAR boat on northern Vancouver Island this summer under the direction of a coxswain who’s spent time icebreaking on the Laurier in the Arctic. He remains skeptical about this new focus and whether it’ll actually amount to anything– not until the ship leaves the weighs do politics mean action, and, of course, the election puts everything up in the air.

  5. Scott Y permalink
    September 1, 2008 8:30 am

    So maybe its the flavour of the week, but I actually will be quite interested to see how the ‘Palin factor’ will impact Harper’s Arctic sovereignty push.

    We still have a boundary dispute with the United States north of the Alaska-Yukon border. And we still disagree with the US over the definition of the Northwest Passage, and recent pushes in the US Congress for US ratification of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea could make for interesting times in Canada-US relations. But the current US presidential election will force Arctic sovereignty into the spotlight, at least on the Republican side.

    With regards to Palin specifically, I’d like to make a couple comments. She supports Arctic offshore drilling (as does McCain off the American West Coast) which will draw in Canadian sovereignty questions absolutely. She also supported a $500 USD million Alaskan government subsidy to Canadian company TransCanada to build a pipeline from Alaska (Prudhoe Bay-via Yukon-Edmonton) that feeds into the Alberta-US oil pipeline network.

    So with a looming election in Canada, I’ll watch with interest how Arctic issues will play into the campaign, especially paralleling the US election.

  6. August 31, 2008 3:08 pm

    With all the talk of developing the arctic, I’ve been wondering what the feasibility would be of extending rail links up there. I know countries like Sweden, Norway and Russia all have rail lines above the Arctic Circle – why don’t we? Money? Terrain?

    It would certainly make shipping food and other provisions up there a whole lot cheaper – not to mention more eco-friendly.

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