Overlooking Tallurutiup Tariunga (Lancaster Sound) in Canada’s High Arctic Archipelago. Photo: Christopher Debicki
It was just over one year ago that Canadians headed to the polls and ended the nearly decade long rule of Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party. Since his election last fall, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has racked up some high profile successes and taken social media by storm. But one area where the new government has remained remarkably quiet is the Arctic. This is a departure from the bellicose rhetoric and grandstanding that characterized Harper’s approach to the region. Early on, we predicted that Trudeau would seek to differentiate himself from Harper. But when you dig past all the rhetoric and look at Canada’s underlying priorities in the Arctic, has anything actually changed?
More of the same
Playing only a peripheral role in the 2015 elections, what a change in government would entail for Canada’s Arctic policy was not entirely clear. Given Canada’s historic approach to the region, however, it was a safe bet to assume that historic Arctic policy priorities would transcend the bickering of consecutive Liberal and Conservative governments. Looking at the various statements and policies issued over the years reveals that the core priorities of Canada’s arctic policies have remained remarkably consistent since the 1970s.
What are these underlying priorities? According to Canada’s Northern Strategy, domestically the focus is on promoting the human security of northerners and the sustainable development of the Arctic. This involves balancing the concerns of all northern stakeholders, ranging from local communities and Indigenous peoples to corporate interests and environmentalists. Internationally, Canada’s focus on upholding national sovereignty claims has remained front and centre; it was the logic behind both their response to the Polar Sea ice breaker dispute in 1985 and Harper’s ritual attendance of Operation Nanook, Canada’s annual military exercise in the Far North.
Does this mean that Canada’s Arctic policy is a static anachronism that has loitered in Ottawa since the 1970s? Far from it. Instead, while the core principles have remained relatively consistent, the way they have been pursued and presented have changed dramatically depending on the government in question.
A new coat of paint
Ever since World War II when the Canadian Arctic first gained strategic value in the eyes of the federal government, each administration has put their own spin on northern affairs. Stephen Harper’s infamous “use it or lose it” approach to the region, for example, was a rhetorical rebranding in order to distance his government’s position from what was perceived as the “overly soft” approach adopted by the previous Liberal government led by Paul Martin who, in addition to asserting Canada’s Arctic sovereignty, focused on housing problems and devolving powers to the territorial governments.
In the same way, Trudeau’s government has been quick to distance themselves from Harper’s legacy in the Arctic. The focus has shifted away from traditional notions of security that were underpinned by a militaristic form of Canadian patriotism. Trudeau has instead emphasized diplomacy and cooperation; mitigation of climate change; and an increased focus on Indigenous rights. This much was reflected in a joint statement released by the Prime Minister and President Obama on a trip to Washington, D.C. earlier this year in which they stressed the importance of science based decision making and promised to create new Arctic wildlife refuges encompassing 10 per cent of marine areas and 17 per cent of land areas by 2020.
This new rhetorical approach was also present in a speech given at the Arctic Council conference in Reykjavík, Iceland, by Stephen Van Dine, Assistant Deputy Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, that emphasized the importance of recognizing that the complexities of development in the Arctic require a strong social license. This echoed Trudeau’s much publicized comment during the election campaign that “governments can give permits but only communities can give permission.” Whitney Lackenbauer, a professor at the University of Waterloo who also spoke at the Arctic Circle conference, highlighted how these rhetorical changes do not signal a new Canadian framework or even any major changes but are instead a continuation of Canada’s historic priorities.
The importance of a social license for development, for example, has been reflected in Canadian Arctic policies and strategic frameworks since the 1977 Berger Report that was commissioned to examine the possibility of building a pipeline from Alaska to the mainland US via Canada. The Royal Federal Commission was led by Justice Thomas Berger at the behest of Jean Chrétien, then Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, and ultimately recommended a moratorium on the construction of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline on the basis that both Indigenous culture and environmental concerns had not been taken seriously during project conception. Notably this was the first time environmental and Indigenous organisations received funding to present their own expert witnesses at the committee hearings.
Same priorities, different levels of commitment
The priorities themselves, although not perfect, are a good foundation on which to build policy. The problems come when these priorities are translated through the filter of government. Beyond rhetoric, the real difference between various Canadian administrations has been the level of commitment, politically and economically, to the Arctic. The lack of substantial commitment was one of the main critiques of the previous Conservative government—prompting Michael Byers, a Canada Research Chair at the University of British Columbia, to label Harper’s approach as “all talk, no action.”
Has Trudeau done a better job of committing to the region? The answer that has emerged over the last year is a tentative yes.
The recently announced conference on Arctic cooperation with Russia is a good example. While maintaining that Canada has a very different stance on the situations in Ukraine and Syria, according to Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, “It makes no sense . . . for Canadian and Russian scientists not to be working together.” And she is absolutely right. If Ottawa wants to have an influence in the Arctic, it is an unavoidable fact that they will have to engage with the region’s largest player: Russia. In fact, Russia and Canada share many similar priorities in the region, most notably identical legal perspectives on the northern sea routes.
Another key policy implemented by the Trudeau government was the appointment of Inuit leader Mary Simon as a Special Representative advising the government. Working together with Indigenous Affairs Minister, Carolyn Bennett, Simon will advise the government on a Shared Arctic Leadership Model (SALM) designed to incorporate the views of northerners in development and conservation policies. While still in its infancy, this SALM could go a long way towards upholding the federal government’s stated priority of engaging meaningfully with northern stakeholders and repairing a relationship long marked by colonialism.
Importantly this has been part of a larger attempt to redefine the relationship between the various levels of government and Indigenous peoples. Although controversy over the way the United Nation’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ is being implemented into Canadian law remains, the removal of Canada’s objector status is an important step in the right direction.
Elsewhere, the government has put their money where their mouth is and brought community level consultation to the Canadian Coast Guard’s Northern Marine Transportation Corridors Initiative; moved ahead with a deep-water port in Iqaluit and an extension of the city’s breakwater; begun consultation on the construction of a small craft harbour in Pond Inlet; engaged seriously with climate change; vowed to review Nutrition North; and toyed with the possibility of expanding Canada’s Northern Warning System.
Going forward: A Trump sized wrench in Trudeau’s plans?
Far from an Arctic revolution, Trudeau’s quiet approach is in line with Canada’s historic priorities in the region. In doing so, it carries on many Harper era policies (the expansion of the Nutrition North Program being a prime example). This consistency is not in and of itself a bad thing as Canada’s underlying Arctic priorities are robust and well thought out. That they have fallen short in the past is not reflective of the policies themselves, but instead of the previous governments who failed to engage with them.
What the shock election of Donald Trump means for Trudeau’s Arctic ambitions is unclear. Despite being too soon to speculate on the full impact of a Trump presidency in the Arctic, his position on climate change appears clear: a self-described climate denier who is on record saying that climate change is a hoax, Trump has vowed to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and reverse all of Obama’s Arctic policies, including the measures outlined in the joint statement on the Arctic between the President and Trudeau earlier this year. Environmental implications aside, tearing up one of the most tangible symbols of US-Canadian Arctic cooperation in years does not bode well. Likely gone are the easy times when the personal amity between the Prime Minister and the President made for smiling photo shoots and joke filled state dinners.
Going forward, Trudeau will have a tough task of balancing the progressive wave he rode to victory in last year’s election and engaging constructively with the new US administration. In addition to defining the North American Arctic, the relationship between the two leaders will resonate across the larger Circumpolar North. That both leaders seem open to engaging with Russia is one promising avenue to explore.
The larger concern remains that Canada does not have the economic or political clout to go at it alone. True at the national scale, this is echoed in the Arctic; the population of Alaska, for example, is roughly seven times larger than that of all three northern territories combined. If real progress is to be made, it has to be done in conjunction with the Americans and the larger Arctic community. In light of the divisive campaign and the controversial transition team Trump has assembled, this cooperation is far from given.
Beyond speculating over what Trump means for the Arctic, it is absolutely clear that there are very real issues facing Canada’s North. That Trudeau has not significantly departed from the policies of his predecessors is not the best indicator of whether or not he will be able to tackle them. Instead, it will be whether or not he carries through with the promising initiatives that have emerged over the last year, and invests in them politically and economically, that will be the measure of his Arctic legacy.
Although a storm may very well be brewing across the border, the Prime Minister needs to do his best to keep cooperation alive and, above all else, respectfully work with northerners to address the myriad challenges they face.