With Parliament deep in summer recess, Prime Minister Stephen Harper can look forward to his annual Arctic adventure. This month, more than 1,000 military personnel will participate in Operation Nanook, what the Department of National Defence calls the “premier” annual exercise in the Canadian north. Activities associated with Nanook are scheduled in four locations, each chosen for “particular geographical and topographical challenges,” as a recent Defence news release put it.
This year marks the seventh year of successive Nanooks, and Mr. Harper has been a regular attendee. Images of the Prime Minister perched on ice floes and in zodiacs alongside camouflaged personnel are now familiar to consumers of Canadian media. (And then there was his 2010 “I think I make the rules” ride on an ATV in Tuktoyaktuk.)
Each year, the pronouncements made alongside Operation Nanook, by the Prime Minister and other political and military leaders, are essentially identical. Words like “strong” and “sovereign” are regularly placed together. There are often sweeping gestures to Canada’s status as a “northern” nation, knowing nods to ongoing and potential resource exploitation, and perhaps a carefully phrased acknowledgment of the Arctic as an indigenous homeland.
This repetition is precisely the point. It is no longer surprising that Mr. Harper’s most prominent visits to northern Canada are in the service of military spectacles. Instead, these visits and these spectacles have become expected. Sovereignty as understood by the federal government seems to need this form of regular affirmation. But it is particularly intriguing that such affirmation is required in the north more than anywhere else in the country.
Surely the apparent need for repetitive northern military activity is related to the latent belief that such activity is also more tolerable in the region. A proposal to conduct seven consecutive annual “demonstrations of sovereignty” in the streets of a major Canadian city would be startling. There is no mistaking the recent turn, under a Conservative government, to a more vigorous embrace of Canada’s armed forces, with particular attention given to the realm of military symbolism. But that does not entirely explain the role of the north as an acceptable space for persistent, significant militarization.
The name Operation Nanook, of course, is a nod to Robert Flaherty’s extraordinary, controversial 1922 film Nanook of the North. But it is hardly a new reference: a United States naval exercise called Operation Nanook was staged in Canadian waters, with a Canadian observer, in 1946. This was an era of intense American and Canadian military interest in northern geography, a fascination made material in a blizzard of construction, from Air Force staging posts and winter warfare research facilities to the iconic radar stations of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line.
Northern military activity has waxed and waned in the decades since, but it would be foolish to ignore the thread of consistency. Whether in 1946 or 2013, splashy events like Operation Nanook depend on and partially mask less evident and more commonplace variants of militarization.
In his recent book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, the University of Wisconsin scholar Rob Nixon addresses “violence that occurs gradually and out of sight,” a sort of “attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.” Given the lengthy, scattered, and little-known history of northern militarization, Mr. Nixon’s idea of slow violence is a suggestive one. It invites us to consider the consequences of persistently treating a region as isolated or distinct and as a laboratory for war. Mr. Harper’s enthusiasm for Operation Nanook suggests that an official version of northern geography – a space for the defence of sovereignty – continues to crowd out or compromise other understandings of the region.
Northern communities and ecosystems are reckoning with the legacies of slow violence. Archival footage of material deposited on Arctic shorelines in the 1950s for military projects makes for eerie viewing when juxtaposed alongside recent images of rusting debris or endless boxes of contaminated soil on the same beaches. It is tempting to attribute such follies to an outdated ignorance. But as yet another Operation Nanook, with its increasingly recognizable iconography, draws to a close, we might also consider what continues to be permitted in the name of sovereignty and security.
Matthew Farish is associate professor of geography at the University of Toronto