Photo: Canadian Pacific
Last week, after nearly a decade of Conservative government, Canadians across the country voted for a more liberal future. In the biggest voter turnout of the century, at 68.49 percent, the Liberal Party, and its head Justin Trudeau, became the country’s new leaders. National debates and party campaigns highlighted the economy, health care, and even the right to wear a niqab as top issues of the election. However, at its core, Canada’s political one-eighty was prompted by something deeper than the current affairs of 2015, something far more important to the fabric of who Canadians are – their national values.
In a country predicated on pluralism, shared values are critical in constructing a coherent narrative that unites an ethnically, religiously, and politically diverse citizenship. National identity provides a sense of belonging – a common compass to orient Canadian’s collective vision for the future. Freedom. Equality. Tolerance and respect for cultural differences. Non-violence. Human Rights. A clean environment. Healthiness. These, according to a recent Ekos survey, are the most important values to citizens from the Atlantic to the Pacific. They are what draw the borders of the True North as both a free country and strong nation.
Over the past nine years, Steven Harper systematically challenged those values in an attempt to redefine Canada at home and abroad. In both rhetoric and policy, Harper rejected Canada’s liberal internationalism and inclusive multiculturalism, constructing a new national narrative of economic prowess and sovereign might.
Hawkish in his military buildup, pragmatic in his social policies, and exclusive in his immigration stance, Harper cut deep at the values of his countrymen. Yes, the public voted last week for Justin Trudeau. But, perhaps more candidly, the country voted against Steven Harper. Aptly put by Canadian journalist Heather Mallick in the New York Times, “Mr. Harper began turning Canada into a place we didn’t recognize. It wasn’t Trudeaumania, it was Harper-phobia.”
Harper’s vision for a new Canadian identity, while effective in keeping him in office for two terms, ultimately failed. His securitized discourse and social dogmatism eventually alienated voters who had once supported him. Harper’s Canada, it turned out, was not the same as Canadians’ Canada.
Despite his own political demise, Harper did influence Canadian identity and Canada’s perception by the international community. But his lasting impact on Canadian culture was not on values like the niqab, for which his campaign so aggressively fought. Instead, it is felt most in one of the least addressed topics of the 11 week campaign – the Arctic.
Nation Building in the High North: identity, the Arctic, and Canadianess
In September 2014, then Prime Minister Harper, seated in front of an imposing map of A Strong Canada, proudly announced the discovery of Her Majesty’s Ship (HMS) Erebus, an ill-fated vessel of the 1848 Franklin Expedition. “This is truly a historic moment for Canada,” he pronounced as he congratulated the national expedition’s success. “Franklin’s ships are an important part of Canadian history given that his expeditions, which took place nearly 200 years ago, laid the foundations of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.” With those words, the Prime Minister connected Canada’s contemporary national identity to that of a centuries old imperialist history of British exploration and presence in the North. In an era of melting sea ice and the contentious question of ‘who owns the Arctic,’ the importance of establishing such a deep-seated historical identity was not lost on domestic audiences or the international community.
When Harper first took office in 2006, the Arctic was still a peripheral region to the global consciousness. In a time before climate change became a topic of conversation, and before the major sea ice retreat of 2012, the Arctic was static. Perceived as a frozen place of harsh weather and strong international cooperation, there was little conception of future economic prospects, and in turn conflict over those resources. But as observations of melting ice gave way to economic and geopolitical opportunities, the Arctic quickly moved from the periphery towards the center of Harper’s system of national valuation and his notion of Canadian identity.
An often used photograph for Franklin news is one of Prime Minister Harper standing at the bow of the HMCS Kingston while sailing through Nunavut this past summer. Standing alone below a Canadian flag waving in the wind, Harper grips the rail and looks pensively out towards the white expanse. The picture, used on CBC, Global News, and CTV, among others, places Harper as a contemporary explorer in an old-fashioned Romantic quest narrative. Used in the context of discovering the wrecks, the photograph, as put by Tina Adcock, conveys a message that “this latter-day explorer has braved the Arctic, found tangible evidence of the Franklin expedition, and thus secured Canada’s claim to the Northwest Passage against foreign interlopers.” The former prime minister’s set Franklin photographs is just one example of his many photo shoots north of 66 Degrees during his tenure. On his annual trips, Harper returns south with a series of commanding pictures set against Arctic backdrops, connecting with First Nation culture, and wrapping himself in the Canadian flag.
But Harper’s icebreaker photographs are just one snapshot of a much larger campaign to imbue national importance, and international recognition of Canada, in the Arctic. In the 2010 Vancouver Olympics one of the main symbols that was used was an Inunnguaq, which controversy aside, demonstrates an important connection to the North. An Inunnguaq is a traditional symbol to the Northern Peoples in Canada. This symbol not only welcomed the world to Canada, but was also a reminder to the Canadian people that they belong to an exclusive group of countries who are lucky enough to find their territory within the Arctic circle. And although this was not directly related to the policies of Harper, it was reflection of his political rhetoric and his desire to include the Arctic under the umbrella of Canadian Sovereignty.
Three years later, Harper’s government launched a virtual exhibit on their website to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913-1918. Hosted on the government’s Northern Strategy page under the “Sovereignty” subsection, Commemorating the Canadian Arctic Expedition: 1913-1918 details the events and outcomes of the first nationally funded Canadian exploration of the western Arctic. The exhibition’s introduction presents the expedition as key in helping to shape Canada into a nation and provided a significant turning point in Canada’s territorial history by asserting Canadian control over thousands of kilometers in the north.
Harper’s cultural nation building of including the North more prominently in Canada’s identity has, at least in part, paid off. According to a 2011 survey, the average citizen sees the North as an integral part of their heritage and identity as a nation. This exhibition, and preformative politics like the Winter Olympics and Harper’s photo-shoots, help to shift the national identity to a more power-laden narrative. From attempting to replace the beaver with the polar bear to substituting human rights leaders with icebreakers on the fifty-dollar bill, Harper has used his time in office to determinedly shift Canada’s national identity from a ‘peacekeeping nation’ to one focused on security and strength.
Translating Narratives into Policy
Connecting narratives from the climax of polar exploration to contemporary notions of national identity do more than narrate history; they help to legitimate sovereignty claims. Moving beyond the 1913 expedition itself, the virtual exhibit detailed above goes onto to link its influences throughout the 20th Century to a continual Canadian Northern strategy of exercising Arctic sovereignty. It moves into the 1930s and the Cold War militarization of the Arctic, through the 1970s establishment of an exclusive economic zone and pollution prevention zone, includes the 1986 claim of the Northwest Passage as internal waters, and finally concludes with the contemporary UNCLOS submissions to claim an extended continental shelf. Paralleling earlier images of the 1913 ships and explorers are “concept images” of large icebreakers currently being built by the Canadian government, such as the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker. Connecting visuals of 19th and early 20th Century polar exploration with images of Canadian icebreakers helps to paint an unbroken, sweeping national Arctic narrative over the past 200 years. It embeds a Northern, sovereign identity as an integral part of the nation through painting a captivating and valid narrative of Canadian Arctic occupation. Establishing a historic Canadian claim to the Arctic, one that reaches further back than independence, helps to buttress not only legitimacy in claims to the Northwest Passage, but also allocating a larger piece of the national budget to Arctic security and economic development.
In this sense, Harper’s nation building through the Arctic has not only been about connecting Canada as a whole. For Harper, it has been about claiming the land in the North as fundamentally belonging to Canada, and setting the stage for what some claim to be future militarization in the region. Such claims are rooted from rhetoric early in the prime minister’s tenure, when he claimed in 2007 that, “Canada must do more to defend Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.” The rhetoric which was seen at the beginning of his time in office has not slowed. In fact, earlier this year, a multi-billion dollar defense spending list was revealed, demonstrating the militarized impact that Harper’s government means to leave in the region. This included, but was not limited to, the modernization of the air fleet in the Arctic by upgrading the Twin Otters, as well as 49 million dollars in new gear for soldiers, including snowshoes, skis, and other winter warfare equipment. The Canadian military has also looked to increase their ability to maintain adequate surveillance in their northernmost reaches. This includes the proposed Polar Epsilon 2, which would allow the Canadian government to use data from the RCM spacecraft to be launched in 2018.
Harper has also translated his narratives of fear into more tangible outputs during his time in office. Operation Nanook, Harper’s counter-intelligence team, is routinely present in the Arctic guarding Canadians against possible terrorism and spying. This operation occurs even though most, if not all, international relations in the Arctic are with allies, and even though the majority of Canada’s top military leaders consistently insist that Canada faces limited risk from this area. Harper went so far as to claim, in 2010, that “with foreign aircraft probing the skies, vessels plying northern waters and the eyes of the world gazing our way, we must remain vigilant.” His word are consistently permeated with trepidation, and seem to be constantly attempting to convince Canadians that, at any moment, foreign actors, from the United States to Russia to jihadist groups, will venture through the unforgiving North to attack the southern homeland.
That same year, Harper held a conference for the Arctic 5, countries that have a coastline in the Arctic. This summit excluded not only three Arctic countries: Iceland, Finland, and Sweden, but also indigenous groups who are Permanent Participants in the Arctic Council. Harper’s exclusion of these actors was an attempt to refocus regional policy and governance on what he considered ‘powerful’ countries that could, according to Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, “set the agenda for responsible management in the region.” While it spoke to his general rhetoric of power and hawkish behavior, it ended poorly for Canada’s perception abroad. The now famous comments by then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticizing Canada for excluding members who have a right and interest in deciding Arctic policy holds testament to his blunder. Many Canadians wonder how their foreign policy went from one focused on multiculturalism and inclusion, to one where countries are excluded based on size and possible influence. But this shift in concrete events like the Arctic 5 conference stem from a much more profound shift in how the Canadian government, and to an extent the Canadian citizenry, has come to value and know their northern territory.
When one ponders the legacy that Harper will leave in Canada, this may well be his most prominent — his elevation of the Arctic’s importance in the larger psyche of Canada, and in turn the claim that Canada holds on the region. The Arctic without doubt holds a presence in the minds of Canadians in a way that has fundamentally shifted since Harper took power in 2006. Through both cultural and political acts, Harper intended to make the Northern part of the country a fundamental aspect of Canadian rhetoric and cultural tableaus – and in large part succeeded. Harper set himself lofty tangible goals to protect his assertion of sovereignty, promising to establish an deep water port, planning to build eight military vessels, and attempting to claim more of the Arctic seabed for Canada. Many of these military promises did not come to pass, have been delayed, or have only recently slowly starting to gain traction. And with the new leadership, these gains may be put in jeopardy.
But, he has left a legacy of imbuing the role of the Arctic in the sense of the Canadian self, and as consequence claiming the North as part of Canada by any means possible. The discourse upon which Harper’s policies are built paint of picture of Canadian military dominance in the region, and more importantly for the incoming Prime Minister, a need to maintain this for the protection of Canada’s future well-being.
Trudeau, what will come next?
“Harper’s legacy in Northern Canada will not be quickly forgotten,” reported CBC on the eve of the Liberal’s victory. “Over the next four years, however, Northerners will experience for themselves what a new government and its new direction will mean for them and their lives.” That new government will begin on November 4th of this year, when Justin Trudeau will ascend to the highest political position in Canada. He will bring with him not only a new cabinet and political agenda, but also his own conceptions of what it means to be Canadian, and which policies best speak to that Canadianess.
Because he has only fairly recently delved into the political game, it is difficult to claim tangibles of what he will do as future prime minister. Educated guesses can of course be, and in fact have already been, made. Perhaps more pertinent to understanding Canada’s future than political forecasting is an analysis of the very national values and identity that formed the impetus for Trudeau’s election.
Justin Trudeau’s values, and his conception of what it means to identify as a Canadian, harken back an earlier time in the country’s history when Canada was first conceiving what it meant to be uniquely Canadian. They echo the values identified in the Ekos poll quoted earlier in this piece – Equality. Tolerance and respect for cultural differences. Non-violence. Human Rights. A clean environment. Healthiness. These are the discourses that have supported Trudeau’s campaign platform over the past three months. Through his speeches, the debates, and media appearances, Trudeau made it clear that his ideas for what Canada was, and should be, were not iterations of Harper’s Canada. He holds a sincere empathy for the distressed, and a desire to reestablish multiculturalism and tolerance throughout the country. He strives to recreate an openness and transparency that Canadians have found lacking in the previous government’s policies. In foreign affairs, he is committed to working together, not against, other nations, and in reinstating Canada’s personality as a peaceful, multilateralist power on the world stage.
The Arctic did not play a prominent role in Trudeau’s political campaign, nor was he given a significant opportunity to speak about policy in the Arctic during the debates. Nonetheless, these values and the political discourses from which Trudeau has and will continue to construct a new Canada will inevitably shape Arctic policy and perceptions during his time in office. When transposed onto the Arctic landscape, they provide the potential of telling the contours of what to expect from Canada’s future prime minister in the Far North.
Stemming from his answer to the question about the Arctic in the recent electoral debates, Trudeau’s circumpolar rhetoric is one of multilateralism. Not only did he speak of building communities, but of working together with inter-governmental groups like the Arctic Council to handle environmental, political, economic, and social challenges that the region faces collectively. Trudeau looks towards the Arctic not as a means to solidify Canada’s own position in the world by underlining Canada’s sovereignty; rather, he envisions the Arctic as an opportunity to further build relationships with other countries and to work across borders to solve potential and current international crisis. This is in stark contrast to the view of the Arctic Council and multilateralism in the region under Harper. During Harper’s tenure, former Council Chair and Nunavut MP Aglukkaq, who lost last week in Nunavut to Tootoo, used the Council and its meetings as opportunities to ridicule Russia over its actions outside the Arctic circle.
Since the October election, Trudeau has made clear that his foreign policies about and actions on issues pertinent to the Arctic, like climate change, will be based on cooperation between various stakeholder groups in Canada and other countries on a multilateral basis. He has already decided to bring not only the premiers of every province, but also the head of the Green Party, Elizabeth May, to the UN Summit on climate change in Paris, also known as the COP 21. With the way the Canadian federal government and provincial/territorial governments have divided power, the provinces/territories share control of environmental management with the federal government. Trudeau’s move to invite the premiers shows how seriously Trudeau means to take the issue of climate change at home. Importantly for the Arctic, with liberal three MPs from Canada’s north – one of which, Nunavut Liberal MP Hunter Tootoo, is poised for a cabinet position – it provides the Canadian Arctic to have a powerful voice and legitimizing seat at the negotiation table. Where state delegations are often comprised of national government officials from country capitals, the importance of bringing sub-national Arctic voices to the negotiations as part of the official delegation should not be lost. It demonstrates the type of dialogue that Trudeau means to emphasize during his tenure, one of cooperation and forging new bonds. This is not just true for provincial politicians, but also for aboriginal leaders like Tootoo, who is Inuit. Trudeau has promised to approach aboriginal-federal relations in a new nation-to-nation relationship, a significant shift from the Harper administration’s relationship. Bringing 10 indigenous political leaders to Paris this December not only holds testament to this shift, but also for the promise of better aboriginal-federal relations in the North.
If one can assume that Trudeau will work with Obama on climate change, which there is evidence to support, one can also draw the conclusion that Trudeau will stand with Obama in regards to the impact that this will have on the Arctic. In August of this year, Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to visit the American Arctic. President Obama, visiting villages on the frontlines of climate change, promised federal funding and local capacity building programs to help adapt to the most dramatic effects of climate change. During this election, Trudeau also promised to invest in climate change preparedness as part of his campaign centerpiece, national infrastructure. The relationship that Trudeau can forge with Obama in the next year of the American Arctic Council Chairmanship holds the hope of setting the scene for future bilateral agreements in the Arctic. Cooperating together during the COP 21 meeting could be the first step in such bilateral climate teamwork. Trudeau’s rhetoric surrounding the environment, and specifically climate change, certainly brings hope to many Canadians after Canada pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol and defunded much national scientific research under Harper’s government. Trudeau accepts climate change as being a real challenge, and although transforming this belief into policy will be difficult, what Canadians can be sure about is that the way the issue will be handled will shift.
While the overarching sympathies anticipated from Trudeau are those of international cooperation and relationship building, it should not be ignored that he also, during the debate and elsewhere, rallied for maintaining a strong navy, specifically citing the Arctic coastline as being in need of protection. It is expected that any leader speak to the national security of the state he is proposing to lead. Such security assurances are the mark of an able and strong head of state in a world of uncertainty, systemic anarchy, and seemingly ever increasing international threats on 24 hours media coverage. But beyond expected reassurances of a strong state by executive candidates, there is an undertone of lingering military sovereignty borrowed from Harper’s northern narrations. The Canadian psyche views the North as a place of potential dangers, dangers that need to be protected against. Exacerbated by nearly a decade of fear mongering speeches from the Harper administration, this securitized mentality will not disappear. Harper’s legacy militaristic framing the Arctic and instilling the country’s northernmost border with an amplified sovereign importance is rhetoric that Trudeau and the incoming government will inevitably inherit.
Harper’s base set of national values may have failed him in the 2015 election. But, he was successful in embedding a rhetorical legacy of sovereignty and security in the far north. In an article in 2011, Professor Jason Dittmer of University College London contended that, “Arctic space is made by foreign ministers, militaries, intergovernmental organizations, scientific bodies, academic researchers, self-styled explorers, and think tanks.” Over the past decade, Harper created a militarized Arctic space through preformative nationalism, political discourse, and securitized symbolic narrations. Harper may not have many tangible legacies in the Arctic, but the sentiments in his words and visuals will live on long after he leaves office next week. Yes, over at least his first term Justin Trudeau will set forth on an agenda that brings international cooperation and climate consciousness back to Canada’s northern territory. However, whether he acknowledges it or not he will need to contend with, and at times accept, the Arctic constructed by Harper through northern narratives imbued with ideas of the nation.
Beyond Arctic Exceptionalism
The Arctic is intricately connected to the rest of the global system through climate feedback loops. Changes in the far North have immediate consequences for atmospheric circulation, ocean circulation, sea-level rise, marine and land carbon cycles, and methane hydrate feedbacks. All of these biochemical systems have critically important roles in the cultures, the human security, the economic health, and very lives of societies from Shanghai to Somalia. Much like these natural cycles, Canadian leader’s Arctic narratives and the syntax and diction that construct them are also intricately connected to the rest of the world and global political affairs.
The Arctic as a region of Canada is, like the snow that covers it, reflective. The values built into the Arctic by Harper over the past decade were not only the narrative of the Arctic; more often than not, they were also reflected in his foreign policy doctrine for the rest of the world. From his bellicose discourse to climate change ambivalence, Harper’s rhetoric in the Arctic was telling of what would be done south of 66 Degrees North. Like Harper before him, how Trudeau narrates the Arctic may well be a reliable indication of how we will act as challenges arise in the rest of the world. As the Arctic faces the world’s most drastic changes in climate and ocean patterns, the national narratives and values that inform Canadian policy in the North under Trudeau will not only prove powerful for the region and its inhabitants, but for Canadian foreign policy for the entire world.