The University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs has released a report entitled, “Rethinking the Top of the World: Arctic Security Public Opinion Survey” (PDF). Based on the results from a survey of 9,000 people in eight Arctic countries, the report gives an in-depth analysis of Canadian perceptions of the Arctic, along with a comparison to attitudes in other Arctic states.

The report breaks down Canada into two regions – the North and South. While Canada sees itself as a northern nation, less than 1% of the country’s population lives in the three northern territories of the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. Most Canadians live within 200 kilometers of the American border along the 49th parallel, far from the Arctic Circle. Yet despite this geographic disparity, there is strong consensus between attitudes of Northerners and Southerners: both view the Arctic as integral to the nation’s identity, security, and foreign policy.

The report states, “Canadians, regardless of where they live, tend to see the Arctic as highly important and feel that it is deserving of a dominant place in our foreign policy.”

Many news articles are highlighting the fact that Canadians are “willing to fight to keep the true north free,” but the most important issue in the Arctic turns out to be the environment. When asked to define what Arctic security means to them, 91% of Northerners and 86% of Southerners said that the environment was “very important,” whereas national security (that is, threats posed by other countries and individuals) figured as “very important” in only 56% and 69% of Northerners and Southerners’ responses, respectively. It’s ironic that Canadians from the South feel more concerned about threats from other countries than people living within the Arctic itself, who are closer to any potential attack or invasion from the north. Still, overall, the vast majority of Canadians support expanding the Canadian Rangers, demonstrating the overwhelming belief in having a strong military presence in the North. Many Canadian Rangers are also Aboriginal, which helps them to draw high levels of support in the North. There are currently only 4,250 Rangers, so even a large expansion of the force’s size would still mean that it would have a small presence in the three territories, which span almost 4,000,000 square kilometers.

Canadians take a significantly more hard-line approach to foreign policy than citizens of other circumpolar nations. They are much more cautious of cooperating internationally. Approximately 42% of Canadians believe that their country should “pursue a firm line in defending its sections of the Arctic.” Only Iceland and Russia come close to this percentage. By contrast, in the Nordic countries and the U.S., fewer than 10% of respondents felt that their countries should take a “firm line.”

Canadians were also the least excited about making the Arctic a region of science and cooperation like Antarctica. Only 8% of Northerners and 11% of Southerners thought this was the best approach, while Russia came in second, at 14%. In all other Arctic states, more than 24% of people believed that turning the Arctic into an Antarctica-like region was a good idea. Yet at the same time, Canadians are the most supportive of the Arctic Council than all other countries, demonstrating that citizens’ views of Arctic policy seem to contradict themselves. Even though Canadians support the Arctic Council more so than residents of any other Arctic country, they are the least excited about opening up membership to non-Arctic states and organizations like China and the EU.

The report has many more interesting findings on public opinion on other Canadian foreign policy issues in the Arctic, such as the Beaufort Sea dispute with the U.S. and sovereignty over the Northwest Passage. In both cases, Canadians are at odd with the rest of the circumpolar community. For instance, almost 80% of Canadians think that the Northwest Passage falls completely within Canadian waters. In no other country do a majority of people agree. Norway has the highest percentage of people who feel that the Northwest Passage belongs to Canada, yet even there, it is only a small 23% of people who believe this.

Finally, the report discusses infrastructure issues, which all Canadians see as “absolutely crucial to the future of the North.” But though infrastructure is extremely important, it is “woefully inadequate.” Everything from housing to office space to water treatment plants to roads, ports, and broadband networks needs to be built.

News Links

“Arctic Security: Fighting for the True North,” Globe & Mail

“Canadians rank Arctic sovereignty as top foreign-policy priority,” Globe & Mail

“Canadians support ‘more troops to defend Arctic claims,'” BBC

Categories: Canada

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Canadians: Hardliners of the Arctic

  1. A professor in my school of international affairs also circulated this survey in the class. It was an interesting read, I must say. I found it a bit surprising that both Canada’s Northerners and Southerners view the Arctic as integral to the nation’s identity, security, and foreign policy.
    It is logical for the Northerners to be of this opinion. But as it is mentioned in the survey, the vast majority of the Canadians has not even been to the Arctic. Yet, ‘the Southerners’ fervently make similar claims as the Northerners. Undeniably, the Inuit ( Canadian citizens) have been inhabiting Canada’s North since the time immemorial. Thus, this argument based on historic presence does have merit in Canada’s assertion of its Arctic sovereignty.

    One can also recall an incident a few years back when the Russian fighter jets were cruising close to the Canadian Northern airspace. This event somewhat caused a media frenzy and paved the way for the Harper government to advocate for stronger military presence in the Arctic to defend Canada’s sovereignty. Not surprisingly, the Canadian public backs up the current government’s Arctic foreign and domestic policies. Such minor threats, which arguably blew things out of proportion, did engrave in the minds of the Canadian public, which is reflected in the aforementioned opinion results.

    As mentioned in the survey, almost 80% of Canadians think that the Northwest Passage falls completely within Canadian waters. Canada accords a great importance to the NWP. The country also has a strong legal case to assert that the NWP is indeed Canadian internal waters.

    On the subject that Canadians oppose the idea of China and the EU joining the Arctic Council, it may be said that these economic powers, which will likely be active visitors of the NWP in the future, have no relation to the Arctic. Thus, they should not be given powers to make important decisions that will affect the entire Arctic region.

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