Canada intensifies involvement in Arctic

This month, both the Canadian government and military are ramping up their activities in the Arctic.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has embarked on his official visit to the Canadian High North, with his first stop in Iqaluit, Nunavat. He has taken a trip to the region every summer since he first became prime minister in February 2006. But whereas during other visits, Harper would triumphantly unveil new Arctic strategies and plans to strengthen the military, this time, the prime minister got off to a bad start. He ate raw seal heart behind closed doors in order to avoid a lashing in the press similar to the one Governor General Michele Jean received a few months ago, and the first couple of days of his visit were marred by the release of a photo of two young Inuit boys sleeping outdoors in the cold.

PM Harper visits Iqaliut. (C) Adrian Wyld, The Canadian Press
PM Harper visits Iqaluit. (C) Adrian Wyld, The Canadian Press

A photo slideshow of Harper’s visit can be seen here.

The Canadian military was off to a better start with their military exercises, Operation Nanook 09, a so-called “sovereignty operation.” The consulting agency ISRIA provides a nice run-down of the activities the military will carry out in the region. It began on August 6 and will continue until August 28. Besides aerial and marine patrols and military exercises, there will also be a “whole of government” exercise “involv[ing] military and civilian authorities in the North, including the Canadian Coast Guard, Transport Canada and local and regional governments, as they test emergency preparedness in response to a critical infrastructure failure.” [1] Such joint efforts echo those in Russia, where the government’s Arctic strategy through 2020 calls for more cooperation between the coast guard, border patrols, and the military, for starters.

Min. of Defense Peter McKay
Min. of Defense Peter MacKay and the Yellowknife Company

South of Iqaluit, Canadian rangers and soldiers conducted an amphibious assault on a beach as part of a military exercise. PM Harper will board the HMCS Toronto tomorrow to watch the rest of the exercises.

Meanwhile, on August 17, the Yellowknife Company debuted. Canadian Minister of Defense Peter MacKay attended the ceremonies. The Yellowknife Company, which is stationed in the Northwest Territories, will be the first primary army reserve unit north of the 60th latitude, marking a big step forward for a permanent Canadian military presence in its Arctic region.

Guns versus Butter

Talk of an arms race is gaining momentum. UPI is running an article under the subject “Emerging Threats” with the headline, “Canada flies NATO flag in Arctic showdown.” Some more gung-ho journalists, such as Matt Gurney, believe that Canada isn’t doing enough to defend its sovereignty, as he writes in the article, “Promises aren’t enough to protect the Arctic.” Gurney mentions Harper’s visit and the military exercises in the Arctic, lamenting,

“While this seemingly suggests that Canada is joining the arms race, the reality is quite different. The sad truth is that the Canadian Forces have never had much of an Arctic capability at all, and every promise made by Ottawa should not be viewed as a step towards an arms race, but correcting a glaring deficiency.”

Don Martin of Canwest News Service is no less harsh, writing that while Harper may be quite vocal when it comes to Arctic sovereignty,

“In terms of the oft-promised ice-puncturing ships, ocean floor submarine sensors, deep sea port or mandatory passage registration regulations, his Arctic defence strategy has produced little beyond downgraded contracts, project delays and regurgitated news releases. [2]

But to many Canadians, there are other problems which take precedence over military weaknesses. Enhancing social welfare programs, ensuring health care, and increasing housing, infrastructure, and federal investment are some of the main priorities of MP Dennis Bevington, who represents the riding of Western Arctic. In fact, these problems aren’t all too different from those in Russia, where lack of jobs, housing, and amenities has caused the population in the northern tundra towns to plummet since the demise of the Soviet Union. The Canadian Arctic might also be highly vulnerable to swine flu, a pandemic we tend to associate with hot, crowded places – not frozen, barren lands (“Inuit a high risk for swine flu, leaders fear,” Globe & Mail).

Harper has responded to criticism of the overemphasis on defense by making good on his 2008 campaign promise to open up a Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency (CanNor). Headquartered in Iqaluit, CanNor’s budget is $50 million over five years, but it is not so much the investments themselves as the presence of a development agency that will help the region, since it will create jobs and help direct growth along a path that enriches the Inuit people instead of primarily resource-extraction companies. MP Bevington noted that the Northwest Territories have the highest GDP per capita in all of Canada, but still has thousands of poor people. I checked these statistics and it turns out that the NWT have a per capita GDP of almost $100,000, about twice that of the rest of the provinces. But apparently, most of this money is not funneled back to the local people. Furthermore, a downturn in diamond mining in the NWT was behind a 6.5% decrease in the province’s GDP last year, which provides fair warning to the Russians as they embark on the Kupol mine project.

Real gross domestic product, 2008. (c) Statistics Canada
Real gross domestic product, 2008. (c) Statistics Canada

Paul Kaludjak, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, remarked,

“We’ve been long aware of the process and we look forward to building policies and programs along that line … to make sure it’s relevant to the Inuit of Nunavut. [The office] has to serve its purpose and the mandate has to reflect what’s needed in the territory. … On many occasions Nunavut and Inuit are not understood, and I hope [Harper] does.”

News links

[1] “PM renews ‘use it or lose it’ vow,” Canada.com

[2] “Harper treks north as Arctic strategy teeters on an icy slope”, Canwest

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