In The Media

Polar opposites: Time for a 180 turn in Canada’s Arctic policy

by Joël Plouffe and Heather Exner-Pirot

December 18, 2015

For some time now, Canada’s approach to the Arctic has been parochial and sovereignty-obsessed. Our Arctic foreign policy is long overdue for some refining and refocusing. It should be reflective of the political, economic and environmental landscape of today’s Arctic, and respond proactively to the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Much can be learned from the early 1990s, when Canada made its most significant contribution to regional Arctic politics by leading the establishment of the Arctic Council and ensuring that indigenous peoples across the Arctic were politically represented in circumpolar affairs.

Yet today’s circumpolar north is very different than that of the early post-Cold War years. The Arctic has become global, with new actors and challenging issues that require greater regional cooperation and dialogue in an era of multiple regional transformations.

Three ideas can kick-start the re-tooling process for Canada’s Arctic foreign policy approach.

First, it’s vital that Canada repairs its diplomatic ties with Russia on Arctic issues. Until recently, Canada and Russia considered each other logical partners in the Arctic, with similar regional human development, stewardship and security challenges.

Russia’s intervention in Ukraine changed that. But while the U.S. and other Arctic states largely have compartmentalized their relations with Russia in the region, the Conservative government’s “principled stance” left Canada playing the role of spoiler — in, for example, the long delay in establishing an Arctic Coast Guard Forum.

Re-engaging with Russia on Arctic affairs not only makes practical sense, it would strengthen and support Russian moderates working towards greater internationalism. Whatever threat Russia poses to Canada’s Arctic security — and many experts think it’s minimal — engagement is the best option for mitigating it.

Second, regional governance should be enhanced and reflect the emergence of new issues and actors in the region. The Arctic Council has been the most prominent institution in the region, forging regional cooperation and stability by uniting policymakers from all Arctic states, indigenous organizations and non-Arctic observers (states and organizations) to work collaboratively on common concerns and goals related to environmental protection and sustainable development.

But while the new Liberal government should continue to support, fund and reinforce the Arctic Council in its current form, Canada also has an interest in supporting and funding alternate institutions to address needs that the Arctic Council’s limited mandate and structure leave unaddressed.

So a new Arctic strategy should include the role of relevant Canadian provinces and territories and indigenous organizations as allies in developing and implementing Canada’s foreign policy objectives through international linkages at the subnational level, where health, education, infrastructure and economic development progress is ultimately led.

Québec offers a good example of the rise of subnational actors in circumpolar affairs. With its Plan Nord, the Couillard government has expanded the province’s diplomatic relations with Iceland, has joined the Arctic Circle Assembly and has signed new agreements on northern-related issues with European Arctic countries through the Nordic Council of Ministers.

The Yukon and the Northwest Territories also have increased their engagement internationally with Alaska as a way to stimulate local and regional economic development, through the Arctic Caucus of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER). Inuit Nunangat has an even longer history of international collaboration with Greenland, Alaska and Russia.

This process can create a new pattern and network of subnational governance that reflects local and regional realities that the federal government should recognize and take part of; shared powers and competencies can be beneficial to all actors involved. The federal government could be a facilitator, helping substate actors be more engaged on the circumpolar stage.

Third, the kinds of partnerships Canada seeks in the region need to include not only issues of environmental and marine cooperation but also those promoting sustainable development. Under the Conservatives, Canada made this a focus of its 2013-15 Arctic Council Chairmanship, to the dismay of some environmentalists. But fundamentally, a focus on development is sound and necessary for the Canadian North and should not be abandoned simply because the previous government favoured it.

To that end, cross-Arctic sectors and areas of innovation that Canada should be promoting in its foreign policy could include: renewable energy; housing and design; food systems; telecommunications; tourism; transportation and infrastructure; science and innovation; and northern focused technologies.

All of those areas and sectors should give impetus to stronger multilevel and multiregional circumpolar cooperation. As common policy concerns, they can open a window of opportunity to reinforce regional stability based on interconnected interests.

During the foreign policy debate in the past federal election campaign, the three main party leaders were asked to share their ideas on Canada’s role in the circumpolar north. All leaders focused on Canadian domestic northern issues; none offered any vision in respect to Canada’s international role in the Arctic. It is therefore not surprising that Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion’s mandate letter from the prime minister made no mention of the Arctic as a priority area for Canada. That unfortunate situation needs to change.

Increased cooperation and dialogue with traditional and non-traditional Arctic actors has been and will continue to be beneficial to Northerners and Canada as a whole. Innovative policies on Arctic economic development, science and collaborative measures that enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of regional stewardship are good areas in which to commence the policy shift.

Joël Plouffe is a Fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. Heather Exner-Pirot is a special projects manager with the International Centre for Northern Governance and Development and a lecturer at the University of Saskatchewan.

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