It was a notable gesture for a man whom political rivals had cast as too friendly with the United States and an early indication that Mr. Harper planned to cultivate a legacy as a champion of the North. It is a well-thought-out strategy, say people who’ve worked in the Prime Minister’s Office – a blend of opportunism and statecraft, shoring up both his party and Canadian unity.
A former senior PMO insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, says that top Conservative strategists have long been bothered by the fact that the rival Liberal Party owned the flag. In most Western democracies, right-of-centre parties tend to own the patriotic vote, but in Canada “Liberals had effectively defined being pro-Canadian as being for the social-welfare state [and] for the CBC,” with a dose of anti-Americanism thrown in.
Mr. Harper’s Canada-first approach to the Arctic is part of an effort to fashion a conservative nationalism, which also includes the celebration of soldiers as part of a Canadian martial tradition, rather than as peacekeepers, and the heavy promotion of the bicentennial of the War of 1812.
“This is politically useful to the PM, but it goes beyond that,” the former aide says. “There’s a danger in a country that absorbs immigrants at the rate we do that if you don’t have a set of norms, a set of stories about yourself, the kind of myths and narratives that create a national identity, that you cease to be a nation. … The Prime Minister’s a big believer in the idea that nations are built by narratives – stories they tell themselves.”
The Arctic file also allows Mr. Harper to stand up to the Americans – generally a crowd-pleaser among Canadian voters – not on ideology but over national interest, such as access to the 1,500-kilometre-long Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which the U.S. insists is an international strait.
“It allows him to tweak American noses, but do it on a file where he can’t be accused of anti-Americanism. It’s not a criticism of capitalism, the West or liberal democracy or free enterprise,” the former PMO insider says.
Starting the year he took office, Mr. Harper has devoted a week each August to a tour of Northern Canada. The Prime Minister is not one for grand or sweeping gestures, but up North he has stood atop a submarine as jets roared overhead or sat in a fighter cockpit for the cameras. Each year before the trips, the Privy Council Office also assembles an update on northern initiatives from across the government.
“It was largely politically driven at the beginning, and then he was intent to keep doing them so it wouldn’t be dismissed as something Southerners do as a once-or-twice, window-dressing thing,” the former PMO staffer says. “To be frank, he can’t stop doing them now. It would be very symbolic.”
‘Generals January and February’ weaken their firepower
In the past, federal leaders have typically been able to leave it to frigid weather to inhibit foreign intrusion – as military historian Charles Perry Stacey has put it, “Generals January and February mount guard for the Canadian people all year round.” But with climate change, Ottawa can’t rely on that protection any longer.
“Other prime ministers didn’t have to deal with … the disappearing ice, with the potential increase in shipping,” says Michael Byers, who holds the Canadian Research Chair in Global Politics at the University of British Columbia.
In 2013, ships made 22 full transits of the Northwest Passage, according to the Canadian Coast Guard. In 2012, there were 30. Thirty years earlier, in 1983, vessels made only three voyages all the way between the Beaufort Sea in the west and Baffin Bay in the east. In 1982, none did.
However, legal experts say the talk about sovereignty incorrectly leaves the impression that Canadian territory is at risk. Realistic threats to Canada’s ownership in the North are small. There are two international disputes: one over the ownership of tiny Hans Island between Canada and Greenland, and one between the U.S. and Canada over about 6,250 square nautical miles of seabed rights in the Beaufort Sea.