EDMONTON — Sovereignty, security, patriotism and pride are all very attractive and powerful concepts have played prominently in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s rhetoric surrounding the Arctic since being elected in 2006.
His promises to bolster Canada’s claims to the Northwest Passage, the creation of permanent Canadian Forces Ranger units to protect the nation’s North and the building of naval vessels capable of patrolling Arctic waters have consistently been highlighted as aspects of Harper’s vision for a Canada First national defence strategy.
During his recent Northern sojourn Canadians were again inundated with media images of the prime minister taking target practice and making announcements of federal government initiatives focusing on economic development as a key means of ensuring his continued commitment to the Arctic.
But all that attention leaves me wondering why Harper continues to act as if the Arctic remains at the top of his defence policy priority list. He has been making promises for years to bolster a Canadian presence in the Arctic — especially in the form of the Canadian Forces — but, to date, there has been no significant progress in actually delivering on his commitments.
In a recent article in the Globe and Mail, Arctic security expert Dr. Rob Huebert asserts that Canada "has to walk its Arctic talk" and take seriously the fact that other states, including Russia and the United States, have challenged Canadian claims to its Arctic sovereignty. Huebert quite correctly pointed out that just because other states are not overtly testing Canada’s claims militarily at this point does not mean it is out of the question in the future. Further, it is a well-known fact that Arctic states and Arctic-interested states have all invested substantial financial, political and military resources into protecting and asserting claims of territorial sovereignty and potential resource extraction.
Canada’s negligence in these areas, however, has led to an indisputable reality: Canada has fallen so far behind in being able to achieve the goals Harper articulated that his Arctic failures are becoming a stain on his time in office.
During his time as a prime minister in minority Parliaments, Harper was quick to defend the need for Canada’s foreign and defence policies to focus on national security and sovereignty. The justification of a ‘Canada First’ doctrine allowed Harper and his cabinet to rationalize a retreat from multilateralism, cuts to foreign aid spending, and a move away from the Liberal-era focus on human rights and security. But since achieving a majority government in 2011, Harper has committed Canada to a mission in Libya that had no clear impact on Canada’s national interests, has been vocally supportive of human rights protection internationally, and has placed higher value on international institutions, as exemplified with Canada’s assuming the Chair of the Arctic Council earlier this year.
Canadians were promised a new era of national security and economic development in the North, which, to date, has not occurred. While Huebert’s determination to force the government to live up to its promises is noble, the fact remains that Harper will never be able to live up to his seven years of strong Arctic rhetoric. As has been the case throughout Canadian history, in order for Canada to achieve the levels of sovereignty and security it requires and desires, it will have to depend on allies, diplomacy, and multilateral institutions.
The notion that Canada was ever going to be capable of defending its own Arctic interests is a fallacy, and though Harper has been quite effective in painting a picture of a Canada that is strong and free in the North, his track record on Arctic sovereignty tells us all we need to know.
Canada is barely hobbling its Arctic talk, and the hope of it ever actually walking it seems to be nothing more than increasingly unpersuasive political rhetoric.
Robert W. Murray is an adjunct professor of political science in the department of political science at the University of Alberta.