Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has embarked on his second-annual tour of his country’s Arctic region. He began his five-day trip in Churchill, Manitoba, located on Hudson Bay. Here in this small town, Harper announced a new CAN $13.4 million in funding for upgrades to the ramps, taxis, and runways of the local airport. In these northern parts of Canada, airports are essential for transportation, as many towns do not have roads leading in and out of them.
The next stops on his tour include Cambridge and Resolute. In the latter location, he will pay a visit to the troops participating in the Canadian Forces’ Operation Nanook, described as Canada’s “premier annual northern sovereignty operation.” One scenario during the operation will involve practicing cleaning an oil spill in Resolute Bay. The exercise will also involve Danish and American forces for the first time ever to “increase interoperability and exercise a collective response to emerging cross- border challenges.”
While it may seem contradictory to invite other countries’ armies to participate in a sovereignty exercise, Defense Minister Peter McKay defended his country’s actions, stating,
“It’s entirely consistent with sovereignty to invite people to come here. If you invite somebody in your house, you’re not giving up any ownership or giving up any control of your home.”
Canada is preparing to have a more permanent force in the Arctic with the new Canadian Forces Arctic Training Centre being built in Resolute.
During his speech in Churchill, Harper affirmed that Canada’s development of its Arctic region is a “long-term” project. He admitted that so far, change has been “incremental.” “This is a sparsely populated, underdeveloped region of the country,” Harper explained. “It will require sustained investments and attention to take advantage of the opportunities that await it.”
Harper’s tour comes on the heels of his government’s release of a 27-page Arctic foreign policy statement, the “Statement on Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy: Exercising Sovereignty and Promoting Canada’s Northern Strategy.” Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon unveiled the new document last Friday. This restatement of Canada’s foreign policy interests in the High North is more multilateral than before, and the shift in policy comes as Canada is preparing to take the reins as chair of the Arctic Council in 2013. Foreign Minister Cannon made some interesting remarks on the foreign policy statement in an interview with CTV available here.
In the interview, Cannon was asked how negotiations over competing claims in the Beaufort Sea were proceeding with the U.S. He responded,
“A group of experts from the State Department as well as other departments were here. We will have a group of our people go down in the early new year to work on how this engagement strategy should move forward. Secretary of State Clinton and myself have determined that it is important that we get our officials speaking. This was never on the radar screen years ago. It was sort of in a the dormant stage; no one really wanted to talk about it. But as the ice is melting in that area, as more and more Canadians go to the north (there are over 100,000 Canadians that live in there,) and Canada is of course an Arctic power, these are things we have to take care of and it is a priority for Canada to look at that.”
Indeed, the Beaufort Sea, which could someday be the site of shipping lanes, is now seen as a more important dispute to be settled than Hans Island. Prime Minister Harper’s recent response to the first-ever Danish tourist expedition to Hans Island was conciliatory and even dismissive in tone, whereas a few years earlier, Canada may have replied more aggressively. On August 14, 62 Danish cruise ship tourists made land at the 1.3 square kilometer island. They erected a cairn filled with Danish and Greenlandic flags. Last year, the cruise, organized by the private travel company Albatros Travel, tried to make this same journey from Kangerlussuaq, but they were impeded by ice.
As quoted in the Toronto Star, Harper commented,
“Hans Island, I think, is a one-kilometre square rock in the middle of the Arctic Ocean so I’m not sure it would have made for much of a tour…But, as you know, we are committed with Denmark to try and work out a resolution to that particular dispute. It is progressing well. Obviously we have bigger fish to fry in terms of the long-term economic development of the north.”
Some of those “bigger fish” are listed in the foreign policy statement. In the document, sovereignty takes precedence, and under that heading are listed two priorities with regard to sovereignty:
- “Canada will seek to resolve boundary issues in the Arctic region, in accordance with international law.” The only land it still disputes is Hans Island. The document mentions the dispute over the Beaufort Sea with the U.S., but claims that “All disagreements are well managed, neither posing defence challenges for Canada nor diminishing Canada’s ability to collaborate and cooperate with its Arctic neighbours.” In any case, Canada will try to peacefully resolve this maritime border dispute in the near future.
- “On the second priority, Canada will secure international recognition for the full extent of our extended continental shelf wherein we can exercise our sovereign rights over the resources of the seabed and subsoil.” Canada will be submitting its claims to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in December 2013.
Despite the multilateral tone of the policy statement which is being promoted in the media, the document proclaims:
“Increasingly, the world is turning its attention northward, with many players far re- moved from the region itself seeking a role and in some cases calling into question the governance of the Arctic. While many of these players could have a contribution to make in the development of the North, Canada does not accept the premise that the Arctic requires a fundamentally new governance structure or legal framework. Nor does Canada accept that the Arctic nation states are unable to appropriately manage the North as it undergoes fundamental change.
Here, we see strong echoes of the May 2008 Illulissat Declaration putting the Arctic Five circumpolar nations above the Arctic Council.
“Krydstogtturister bygger varde på Hans Ø,” Jyllands Posten (in Danish)
“Minister Cannon Releases Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy Statement,” Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada