Analysis: Canadian Policy in the Arctic

This year, Canada has involved itself in a number of trans-Arctic and trans-Atlantic disputes. In February, there was the military jet incident with Russia. Spats with Russia have spilled over into the NATO sphere, as Canada pushes for Georgia and Ukraine to join to the Kremlin’s chagrin. Then at the beginning of this month after the EU voted to ban seal product imports, Canada threatened to take the issue to the WTO. And at the Canada-EU Summit in Prague last week, the seal debate eclipsed what was supposed to be the main topic of discussion: free-trade.

Whether Canadian’s Arctic agenda is seen in a positive or negative light, the country’s foreign policy posture has changed dramatically in recent years. Canada purports to be a much more important player on the international scene than it did under the previous Liberal administration. In 2006, the newly-formed Conservative Party, a coalition party formed by the merging of the Canadian Alliance and PC Party, won the most number of seats in the federal election, making it the new majority party. (For a deeper look into the recent history of Canada’s political about-face, Slate published a good article last September.)

Harper became prime minister at this time, and for him, Arctic sovereignty has been a top priority, with “use it or lose it” mentality, a term Harper himself has used. He has even employed soft power tactics abroad, such as art shows and cultural events, to further Canada’s push for sovereignty. Under his administration, all cultural programs held by embassies abroad must serve to advance Canadian policy goals.

The Globe and Mail, Canada’s biggest national newspaper, published two interesting articles this week on Canada’s role in the Arctic.

The first one, called “How Harper’s European spring turned sour,” argues that Canada’s aggression in the Arctic has undermined its attempts to reach out to Europe. Canada, the article argues, is trying so hard to demonstrate its Arctic sovereignty and rebuff other countries’ claims – particularly those of Russia – that it has ended up looking like the Bear itself:

Canada’s Arctic-ownership agenda is being pushed, but Nordic leaders and EU officials complain that Ottawa’s bellicose tone sounds more like Moscow’s unilateralism than their co-operative vision.

The second editorial, “Canada to World: Hands off,” offers an in-depth examination into Canada’s new pro-sovereignty, pro-Arctic policy. Canada’s push to show that the Arctic – or at least the 1/3 of it that Canada is claiming – is Maple Leaf territory,  is taking place across diplomatic, military, and cultural fronts. The diplomatic-cultural part of its agenda involves, among other things, opening a Canadian International Centre for the Arctic Region in Oslo. The government claims the purposes for the office are to promote Canadian interests in the Arctic and act as a hub for international scientific research. Furthermore, photography exhibits centered on Canada’s Arctic and its people are also being held in places like Trafalgar Square.

The editorial concludes with this statement:

“But at its core is a far more simple and relentless message: It may be empty and cold and inaccessible, but it’s got a red-and-white flag on it.”

But upon closer inspection, Canada doesn’t seem to be all that concerned with maintaining 100% sovereignty in its Arctic affairs. BMT Fleet Technology, which though based in Ontario is a subsidy of British Marine Technology, recently won a $10.4 million contract to assist with engineering and logistics of Canada’s eight new ice-capable Arctic patrol ships, scheduled for delivery in 2013-2019. The ships themselves will be built in Aker Yards Marine of Vancouver, part of STX ASA, which is owned by a South Korean shipbuilding tycoon and headquartered in Oslo. Scottish company BAE Systems of Glasgow will also assist with the shipbuilding process. In the past, the company has helped integrate combat systems into ships’ technology.

And of course, the Conservative Party isn’t the only voice in Canada on Arctic issues. The Green Party, which has criticized the creation of an Arctic political office in Oslo, has its own platform here, which calls for more environmental and cultural protection. The Greens have criticized the Tories for being too focused on defense and security measures.

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