In The Media

Canada’s place in the mystical North

by Colin Robertson

Ottawa Citizen
August 27, 2012 

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s annual tour, coincident with the Canadian Forces’ Operation Nanook, guarantees that, at least for a week, southern Canada looks to our North.

This year the western scenario of the Forces exercise involved a barge carrying toxic chemicals colliding with a ferry shuttling travellers across the Mackenzie River, obliging the evacuation of Tsiigehtchic. Last year, the scenario involved a plane accident that sadly turned to reality with the First Air flight crash near Resolute Bay.

In situations such as this, while the civil authorities lead, as we have witnessed through disasters in the south, be it forest fires, ice storms or hurricanes, it is our Forces that have the necessary capacity to support and respond to environmental and other calamities.

Operation Nanook is the most visible of ongoing exercises directed from Joint Task Force North in Yellowknife.

Critics describe these activities as “militarization” of our North.

They are wrong.

We face no imminent threat to our Arctic sovereignty. The real challenges — bears and black flies, ice, cold and permafrost — are the same that confronted explorers such as Alexander Mackenzie and Sir John Franklin. These exercises are more about safety and security than defence. They are about useful tasks such as landing an RCAF Twin Otter, the “farm truck” of the North, on the Dempster Highway.

Historically, our attention to the North has been mostly in reaction to American interests, real or imagined. The Second World War gave us a highway to link Alaska with the lower 48 states. The Cold War created a dotted network of radar stations — the DEW line — that on the map gave the appearance of presence, however illusory. The SS Manhattan’s 1969 voyage through the Northwest Passage sparked a debate around the right of passage.

American interest has also been a driver for economic development from the Gold Rush to the Mackenzie Valley pipeline. The former obliged us to provide order, through our Mounties and territorial government. The pipeline proposal sparked the Berger Commission that put a moratorium on development. It served as an impetus for the negotiation of northern land claims allowing aboriginal peoples to take greater control of their lands and lives.

Local governments have spawned economic development agencies such as the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, chaired by former NWT premier Nellie Cournoyea. These kind of institutions, administered by and for northerners, that will be best equipped to deal with sustainability and address the social ills: drug addiction; alcoholism; and a suicide rate five times that in the south.

Hunting and fishing will always be part of northern tradition and way of life, but there is a recognition that change is coming because of rising temperatures and technological innovation giving greater access to the riches of the North. There is a determination an economic base providing jobs with a future, that goes beyond tourism. This puts a premium on education. It also means, as recommended recently by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, welcoming investment and resource development on the basis of full partnership.

Industry should consult the Canadian Forces, which have both practical experience and expertise in dealing with northerners and their unique governance structure. The Canadian Rangers, for example, successfully draw on the talent of northerners in service of their communities as well as the Canadian Forces.

For Canadians, the North has a mystical appeal. Space seems infinite while time is measured less by the clock than by the sun and the seasons.

With most of us huddled within a hundred miles of the 49th parallel, our real frontier — north of 60 — is a place where the population is smaller than Prince Edward Island’s. The land mass — 40 per cent of Canada — is bigger than Europe. The cultural and demographic differences between the territories — in the Northwest Territories, for example, there are 11 official languages — obliges patience. Building trust takes time.

We come from all corners of the globe but geography and climate define us as people of the north. We correctly celebrate our “true north strong and free” in our art and literature.

We may think we know all we need to know about the North.

We don’t.

Yet we do have experts in our universities, within industry and the public service. Connecting these dots of knowledge and creating more Canada Research Chairs devoted to study of the North would be useful initiatives by the Conservative government. We could use this expertise as we re-take the chair of the Arctic Council in 2013.

Initiated as a “high-level forum” through the Ottawa Declaration in 1996, the eight-nation Arctic Council is useful. It was the catalyst for the 2011 search and rescue mutual co-operation agreement.

We should use our two-year term as chair to give a voice, as observers, to other nations with northern interests, especially China, whose goods will eventually transit polar routes. The inevitable opening of new sea lanes is another incentive to get moving with the construction of our icebreakers and Arctic patrol ships.

It’s also a reminder to avoid the folly of flag-waving, especially as we prepare to submit our extended continental shelf claim to the UN. The brouhaha with Denmark over Hans Island and then that created when the Russian submersible Artika planted a flag near the North Pole in 2007 are less diplomatic crisis than opera bouffe.

To prevent such silliness from escalating, let’s institutionalize the meetings at the chief-of-staff level begun in Goose Bay earlier this year by General Walter Natynczyk.

There is a map in Inuvik airport of the circumpolar region. Sitting atop the world it is a graphic reminder that Canada has both place and stature in the North. Let’s continue to exercise it.

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice-president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a senior adviser to McKenna, Long and Aldridge LLP. He recently spent a week near Inuvik embedded with Operation Nanook.

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