Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has made Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic a central feature of his eight-year tenure, sat down to talk to The Globe and Mail’s Steven Chase in the Prime Minister’s Langevin Block office in Ottawa on Wednesday.
The geographic North Pole claim is part of our international claim for seabed rights. What can you tell me about your decision to ensure this claim includes the Pole?
It was a government decision. It wasn’t simply my decision. Look, first of all, Canadian governments have claimed the North Pole since I believe at least the 1930s. So in my judgment there would have to be a compelling reason to surrender that claim. There is no such compelling reason. The preliminary data to us indicates that Canada has a very plausible claim to the North Pole. The view of the government, as a whole, is that at this stage in the process we should make the maximum claim we can make, plausibly and with scientific evidence. Everything we have indicates that such an approach would include the North Pole. So I could see no reason why we would pre-emptively and without any hard data or scientific reasons pre-emptively surrender such a claim. It makes no sense to me at all and that was the unanimous view of my colleagues.
You’ve been in power for about eight years now and I assume you’ve had some time to think about this: I’d like to ask you about your vision for the Arctic, for the North. Where do you hope we’ll be in 10 to 15 to 20 years?
I would just follow it along the four pillars of our Arctic strategy.
Economic and social development: We want to see the prospect of significant development, economic growth and job opportunities occurring for people up there. Unemployment rates, especially in Nunavut, obviously remain distressingly high. And so we want to see those economic opportunities develop. We understand that that requires not just the kind of investments and policy changes we’ve been making to encourage resource opportunities, but also it requires more infrastructure in many cases because infrastructure is, in many parts of the Arctic, minimal. It requires also better levels of social development and obviously we all know about the challenges that exist in terms of education, housing and other living standards issues. So that’s a whole lot of things we’d like to see improve over the next generation so all those opportunities could be realized.
Environmental protection: It’s an awfully big place. There’s a hell of a lot of room for economic development while still maintaining large, huge areas of pristine environment and, by the way, the environmental tourism that could go with that and is already starting on a very small scale. It could be much larger.
Sovereignty: We just talked about that. Our views there are well known. We want to see Canada’s presence established regularly throughout the region. Our ability to project ourselves there for any kind of problem, whether it be a direct threat to sovereignty or environmental regulation, search and rescue, you name it. We want to be able to see a country that can be as present there as – I wouldn’t say as quickly but maybe almost as quickly as possible as we could be in the rest of Canada for any of those reasons.
The fourth pillar is devolution: Really giving Northerners more control over their lives. And obviously we’re doing that. It’s been substantially achieved in Yukon, we’re now well on the way to achieving it in the Northwest Territories. And there’s more work to be done to achieve it in Nunavut. We’ve begun those steps. We want to be able to see northerners … masters of their own affairs to the same degree that southerners are.
There are not fine divisions between all of those four pillars of our agenda. They are not all tight, compact compartments. There is obviously overlap and some reinforce the other. But that’s what we would like to see over the next generation. But there’s a lot of work to be done.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is promoting the Northern Sea Route [the Arctic’s Europe-Asia route above Russia] trying to encourage people to use it. They’re setting themselves up as a thoroughfare for shipping.