In The Media

Sibley: Canada ignores Arctic sovereignty at its peril

by Robert Sibley (feat. Rob Huebert)

Ottawa Citizen
October 2, 2015

Two issues critical to Canada’s identity — Arctic sovereignty and immigration — are not being discussed in any depth in this election, argues Robert Sibley, who offers his views of what’s at stake in a two-part series. Today: Why the ‘true North strong and free’ is more than a line in the national anthem.

Elections, it’s been said, are no time to discuss serious issues. Considering the last nine weeks of this election campaign, you might be tempted to think this view, attributed to former prime minster Kim Campbell, has some validity.

Since early August the Canadian electorate has been beguiled by competing claims of political competence, pledges of a better life under this or that party, and, of course, bouts of character assassination as opposing party leaders cast themselves as the nation’s redeemers and their opponents as bad news bearers.

To my mind, though, there are at least two issues of importance to the country’s long-term future that deserve greater considerations than they have so far received in this election. These issues – Arctic sovereignty and immigration – highlight existential concerns pertaining to Canada’s not-so-distant future and, indeed, raise questions about Canadian national identity, assuming there is such a thing.

A society only articulates itself as a nation through some common intention among its people. – George Grant

A nation, political theorist Benedict Anderson once said, is an “imagined community.” The citizens of even the smallest state never know most of their fellow citizens, meet them, or even hear of them, he argued. But the consciousness of each citizen contains an image of his or her communion with all those other unknown and unknowable citizens. This sense of belonging can be rooted in shared language, religion, race, institutions or history. But geography, too, fosters imaginative responses — political, social, economic and cultural — that over time provide a kind of psychological map of national identity.

In one fashion or another every generation of Canadians draws on this map to articulate what it means to occupy of the northern half of the North American continent. Historically, one of those abiding articulations has been the idea of ourselves as a people of the North. In the decades after Confederation many Canadians envisioned themselves as the forbearers of a rugged northern people. Canada was to be the “Britain of the North,” a “northern kingdom,” or, in the words of the national anthem, the “true north strong and free.”

Such sentiments are, no doubt, quaint to postmodern ears. Yet the idea of “northernness” still finds expression in our political discourse, however diluted it may be. For instance, during the leaders’ debate on foreign affairs on Monday each of the three party leaders made inchoate claims to a northern identity. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau waved his “northern” credentials in mocking Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s annual visits to northern Canada as mere photo ops. Harper himself has repeatedly evoked Canada’s northern heritage during these tours when he asserts that “Canada’s Arctic is central to our identity as a northern nation.” (For his part, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair made a campaign stop in Nunavut on Wednesday.)

Unfortunately, none of the party leaders took the question of Arctic sovereignty asked of them in the debate as an opportunity to articulate a substantive “northern vision.”

A Canadian prime minister has three fundamental responsibilities in serving the nation: unity, prosperity and security. The last one encompasses the other two; without security the nation’s unity is at risk and you can pretty much forget about prosperity. All three elements dovetail with the issue of Arctic sovereignty. Until its brief appearance in the Munk debate this week the question of Canada’s control over the Arctic had received little, if any, attention.

The reason is straightforward, says Derek Burney, a former Canadian ambassador to the United States, and a senior strategic advisor with the Ottawa law firm of Norton Rose Fulbright. “Unfortunately, there are not a lot of voters up there. So it’s not an issue that turns the crank of our politicians regardless of the region’s importance.”

He has a point. Canada’s colonies north of the 60th parallel – Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut – have fewer than 120,000 people spread across four million square kilometres. That’s an area bigger than India. The North constitutes 40 per cent of Canada’s land mass and 75 per cent of its coastline.

With the Arctic gaining greater geopolitical attention because of the melting polar ice, Burney and other observers say Canadians neglect the region at their peril. The region is estimated to hold a third of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and about 15 per cent of its undiscovered oil. All Arctic countries — Russia, the United States, Denmark and Norway, as well as Canada — are eyeing the area as thawing ice exposes potential sea-lanes that would provide access to resources and open the region to shipping.

“These are serious issues, but I don’t detect a great depth of interest in them by Canadians in this election,” says Burney. “There is no serious public engagement on the issue of Arctic sovereignty even if the Arctic is where much of our future resides.”

That future will most certainly be challenged. Russia is strengthening its military presence in the Arctic, adding to its fleet of 40 polar icebreakers. Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered his defence ministry to “pay special attention to the deployment of infrastructure and military units in the Arctic.”

Canada possesses a single heavy Arctic icebreaker, the Coast Guard’s 50-year-old Louis S. St-Laurent. In August 2014, it and another vessel, CCGS Terry Fox, a Gulf icebreaker, were the first Coast Guard vessels to reach the North Pole in 20 years.

The Russians had been there before them. In 2007, a Russian research vessel used mini-submarines to plant a flag on the seabed below the Pole, symbolically staking a claim to oil and gas reserves.

The gesture, say observers, was evidence of Russia’s intention to challenge Canada in the high Arctic. “There is no question the Arctic is going to be militarized,” says Fen Osler Hampson, a professor on international relations at Carleton University and a director at The Centre for International Governance Innovation. “Some of the things senior Russian officials have said about the Arctic are chilling.”

China is also increasingly attentive to the Arctic. The Chinese see the possibility of ice-free waterways providing shorter sea-lanes connecting markets in Asia and Europe. And they, too, are eyeing the region with military strategies in mind. “The possibility of (China’s) open declaration of sovereignty over the Arctic and Arctic sea routes, as well as territorial claims, cannot be eliminated,” writes one Chinese academic, Li Zhenfu. “Whoever controls the Arctic sea route will control the world economy and a new internationally strategic corridor.”

“While it is certainly not an Arctic state, China nonetheless feels entitled to a voice in Arctic affairs and does not want wealthy and powerful northern states to grow even more so at the expense of the wider world’s access to Arctic resources and navigation routes,” says David Wright, a history professor at the University of Calgary and a specialist in Chinese history.

Then there’s the United States. The Americans have long disputed Canada’s claim that the Northwest Passage is an “internal waterway” subject to Canadian control. They regard it as an international waterway open to unrestricted passage by any nation’s vessels

Like it or not, then, the Arctic region includes two superpowers, with a third – China – on the horizon, none of which can Canada compete with militarily. Nevertheless, Canada cannot avoid responding to these geopolitical realities if its Arctic sovereignty is to be more than rhetorical, argues Rob Huebert, the associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. It is naïve, he says, to think challenges to Canada’s Arctic sovereignty can be solely dealt with through diplomatic and legal channels.

“For many states, and this is particularly true for the very powerful, they will only respond to the efforts of less powerful states when those less powerful states have the capability and political will to protect what is truly important to them,” says Huebert. “In this way, Canada must have the capabilities to ensure that it knows what is happening within its Arctic region and that it can respond to the actions of states that may threaten our interests.”

The Conservative government has taken some steps in this direction. In 2008, it announced it would require vessels entering Arctic waters to notify federal authorities. And Lancaster Sound, at the eastern entrance of the 1,500-km Northwest Passage, was selected as a marine conservation area.

In 2007, Stephen Harper announced the government’s intention to establish a permanent Arctic naval facility at Nanisivik on Baffin Island, the only deep-water port in the Canadian Arctic. As well, there were plans to build as many as eight military vessels especially for the North as “the most effective way to assert Canada’s authority, independence and sovereignty” in the Arctic waterways.

Those commitments have yet to be fulfilled. The Nanisivik naval station will likely remain a refuelling station for some time. The naval ship program has been trimmed to five or six from eight, but those won’t be icebreakers. Still, Harper has not abandoned his pledges. Earlier this year, the government signed a $3.5-billion construction of five of these Arctic Offshore Patrol ships, and, in early September, Irving Shipbuilding in Halifax announced the start of production of the first ship, HMCS Harry DeWolf. It is expected to be delivered to the Navy in 2018. The 103-metre long ship can be described as a light icebreaker, able to plow through one-metre thick ice. That will give the Navy greater access to the southern reaches of the Arctic Archipelago, but missions into regions of heavy ice would likely require Coast Guard icebreakers. In any case, the Navy ships will make us of the Nanisivik station.

On the diplomatic front, Canada two years ago submitted a preliminary application to the United Nations to extend the country’s continental shelf in the Arctic beyond the current 200-nautical mile limit to the North Pole area. The government continues to gather scientific data that will, presumably, bolster the claim.

Burney suggests another diplomatic effort: revitalizing an old institution, the North American Aerospace Defense Command by which Canada and the United States kept watch on the Soviet Union during the Cold War, by giving it a “polar dimension.”

“The Americans have in the past rejected our claims that the Northwest Passage is an internal waterway and argued it is international waters and should be treated as high seas,” he says. “But they may want to shift (that position) considering the threat from Russians and Chinese (in the Arctic). It may actually be to the Americans’ interest to support Canada’s claim.”

But more than military hardware and politicians’ sentiments are needed to maintain Canada’s Arctic sovereignty, say observers. The fact that Arctic sovereignty has received so little attention in this election is, in large measure, due to the negligence of Canadians as a whole. As Hampson puts it: “We get nationalistic about the North, but it doesn’t translate into concrete action.”

What’s necessary, Hampson and Burney write in their 2014 book, Brave New Canada, is a balance of soft and hard power to give substance to our stewardship of the Arctic. We need, they say, “to integrate the Arctic into the culture and well-being of Canada, as opposed to empty space on the top of our maps.”

In others words, Canadians need to remember their northern spirit.


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