In The Media

Ambassador takes icy plunge for Canada

by Marie-Danielle Smith (feat. Joël Plouffe)

February 17, 2016

Would you climb into freezing cold sea water through a hole in the ice, wearing a Team Canada jersey, hockey stick in hand?

Would you do that, and then give a speech livestreamed on the Internet?

One Canadian ambassador did just that.

Polar Bear Pitching in Oulu, Finland might not have offered Andrée Noëlle Cooligan a literal platform to stand on Feb. 11, but it did offer a cool opportunity, she told Embassy.

Yet while Canada actively promotes itself to Arctic neighbours—though not always in such spectacular fashion—some experts worry the Liberals’ Arctic policy hasn’t taken shape yet. Beyond a softening towards Russia and a focus on climate change, they are still waiting for the government to spell out its Arctic priorities.

'People are watching'

John Higginbotham, a senior distinguished fellow at Carleton University and at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, said “there’s no big plan for it.”

“Where’s the plan? Where’s the long-term plan for investment, infrastructure, social, educational resources for these remote communities? There’s a whole variety of issues where relatively little was said during the campaign or subsequently,” he said.

Asked for a list of Canada’s Arctic priorities, Global Affairs Canada spokesperson John Babcock said the government was working with partners, including other Arctic countries and Indigenous peoples, “to address key issues such as climate change and sustainable development for the benefit of Northerners and all Canadians.”

Joël Plouffe, a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, told Embassy he sees a window for Canada to firm up its bilateral engagement on Arctic issues. “People are watching,” he said, just four months after the Oct. 19 election.

“I think Canada has a responsibility and an interest to sit down with the other Arctic states and say, ‘we’re back,’ also in the region,” Mr. Plouffe added, alluding to the prime minister’s more general assertion that “Canada is back.”

Ms. Cooligan said she witnessed a real upsurge of interest in Canada as Helsinki media outlets succumbed to “a little bit of Trudeaumania” and “star appeal” post-election.

Unprompted by Canadian officials, the line “more hope, less fear” made it into newspaper articles. “I kind of laughed to myself. That was a party line in Canada, how did that make the Finnish press?”

At a mining industry dinner hosted by Ms. Cooligan, the Finnish equivalent of Canada’s deputy minister of environment stood and gave a speech about how Finland “needs more Canada.” “That person quoted the new prime minister when before, they wouldn’t have even known Mr. Harper’s name,” she said.

But how can this enthusiasm turn into more opportunities for Canada?

Ms. Cooligan and her staff are trying to leverage that, continuing years of under-the-radar Arctic co-operation.

Specific points of interest for the Finns are a potential upswing in Canadian investment in clean technology and alternative energy—exciting for a country that has long been one of the world’s top investors in research and development, as a percentage of its GDP—and a softening of rhetoric in Canada’s dealings with Finland’s neighbour, Russia.

“Our government, they’ve done something important...they’ve said we might not agree, but we’ll talk,” Ms. Cooligan explained. “When it comes to Russia, that’s so important. I don’t know if it’s face-saving, but that approach is really important to that culture.”

Mr. Babcock said the government “recognizes the importance of dialogue and diplomacy in resolving international issues” and “Canada will continue to work with all Arctic states, including Russia, to assert Canada’s national interest.”

'Comfort level' to not having separate Arctic Council minister

The North forms a neutral area of co-operation with Russia, Finland and others in the Arctic neighbourhood, including Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and the United States.

The Conservative government had come under criticism after hounding Russia for its annexation of Crimea at Arctic Council meetings, which are supposed to largely avoid political issues. The Russian foreign minister skipped a ministerial meeting in Iqaluit in April 2015, during Canada’s chairmanship of the council, as a result.

Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion now acts as the minister responsible for the Arctic Council. Having one person instead of several to report to—Arctic Council and Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq and Foreign Minister John Baird under the previous government—“has a comfort level,” Ms. Cooligan said.

The US chairs the Arctic Council until 2017, when Finland will take over.

Ms. Cooligan said diplomats in Helsinki have determined what key areas of Finland’s chairmanship are likely to be, though they haven’t yet been formally articulated.

Telecommunications, or connecting northern communities; co-operation on meteorological data and satellite technology; and Arctic search and rescue will likely be Finnish priorities, she said.

'Remarkable' continuity from previous government

Before going into the cold water “for my job” Feb. 11, Ms. Cooligan had addressed a group of Fulbright scholars Feb. 11 on Canadian Arctic priorities. They also heard from the US ambassador (who also took the icy plunge) and Secretary of State John Kerry via video.

Greg Poelzer, the executive chair of the University of Saskatchewan’s International Centre for Northern Governance and Development, was there.

“The talk [Ms. Cooligan] gave could’ve been given by essentially the previous government. That actually did surprise me,” Mr. Poelzer said.

“Climate change probably got more attention than it would’ve under the previous government,” he said. Another difference was the “very diplomatic” approach to avoiding any inflammatory rhetoric about Russia. But, “these are shades, not radical was remarkable, the degree of continuity.”

Andrea Charron, a postdoctoral fellow at Carleton University, said she sees a domestic shift in how Canada’s treating the North, however. “You see this in how quickly the prime minister has made it a point to speak with indigenous leaders,” she said.

“That’s different from the Harper sounds like they’re more interested in grassroots. We cannot do what we’ve done in the past, to say, ‘we in Toronto think that you in the North should do this.’”

She noted that the mandate letter for Mr. Dion doesn’t mention specific Arctic priorities. But maybe that’s a good thing, she contended. “Our Arctic is not just about its relationship vis-a-vis other states.”

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