In The Media

Trudeau government announces ‘rational’ shift in Arctic policy, will seek to work with Russia

by Marie-Danielle Smith (feat. Joël Plouffe)

National Post
October 1, 2016

OTTAWA — In its first major statement on the Arctic, the Trudeau government has moved away the more-confrontational approach that dominated Conservative policy, with Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion putting Russia at the centre of Canada’s northern policy.

A rapprochement between the two countries is expected on the northern front, despite concerns over Russian actions in the Middle East and Ukraine, not to mention friction over the North Pole.

Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, Dion’s parliamentary secretary, outlined the new approach at a Carleton University/Centre for International Governance Innovation event Thursday.

“Between us we control three-quarters of the north,” she said in a speech written by Dion. Canada “wishes to be rational,” so working with Russia in the Arctic is “eminently sensible.”

CIGI fellow John Higginbotham, who helped organize the event, said he was pleased and surprised by the statement.

“It touched all the right bases, the importance of Russia in the Arctic, the importance of co-operation, while not diminishing at all Canada’s very strong position on Ukraine and Syria, our support for NATO, the requirement for deterrence,” he said.

Dion appears ready to keep discussion on the Arctic neutral. In November, there will be a joint conference in Ottawa, Canada’s preferred method of negotiating with Russia. As early as 1984 there was a Canada-USSR Arctic Science Exchange Program.

Relations became chilly with the Conservative government after Russia annexed Crimea. Criticism trickled into typically neutral spaces like the Arctic Council, with the Russian foreign minister skipping a Canada-hosted meeting after it was hinted Ukraine would be discussed.

The trick is to put up a “firewall” between the Arctic and other issues with Russia, said the University of British Columbia’s Michael Byers. The new policy is a “striking change of approach.”

“I think this is a wise policy shift for the simple reason that Russia is an indispensable partner in the Arctic,” he said.

“We’re very much a senior actor on par with Russia and the United States — and as Mr. Dion and Prime Minister (Justin) Trudeau are serious about bringing Canada back to international politics, the Arctic is an obvious place to start.”

“That is something that we were hoping would happen, that northerners were hoping would happen,” added Joel Plouffe, a research fellow at the Université de Québec à Montréal. Canada and Russia share similar conditions and should share information.

That responsibility for the Arctic is now that of the foreign minister, rather than a separate minister for the Arctic Council, as in the previous government, is another sign the Liberals are taking issues seriously, Plouffe noted. 

This government also hasn’t been using words like “sovereignty” or announcing military spending like its predecessor, though Arctic offshore patrol ships are still being built.

Fears over militarization of the area are overblown, not least because weaponizing the Arctic in earnest would be enormously expensive. It would “bankrupt” Russia, said Byers.

“The north is no place for military confrontation or buildup,” said Dion’s speech.

Still, as sea ice melts, the Arctic will garner more attention. While Arctic sea borders are still being looked at by the United Nations, Canada and the U.S. are at loggerheads over the northwest passage.

Canada sees the northwest passage as sovereign territory, but the U.S. says it is an international strait, so the two countries must negotiate a solution.

The passage of increasingly large cruise ships, like the Crystal Serenity that can carry more than 1,000 passengers and docked this summer at ports in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, was a “wake-up call,” Plouffe said.

Smuggling and immigration could become problematic, if commercial routes open up. Airspace must be talked about — Russia could fly a jet through if it wanted.

“There are all kinds of challenges that could arise as a result of two extremely close allies, Canada and the United States, having a lingering dispute over something as important as the northwest passage,” said Byers.

It’s “the one issue in our bilateral relations on which we do not have active discussions. We have to talk.”

Still, a lot depends on the American presidential election results this fall.

“I don’t see a Donald Trump administration addressing this issue,” noted Byers, though he thinks Hillary Clinton would be “receptive.”

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