Stephen Harper has been pounding the drum of Arctic sovereignty even before he became Prime Minister. And in 2007, he rattled his sabre and said the Conservative government would buy as many as eight ships to allow the military to conduct regular patrols of northern waters.
His plan, however, to open his sixth annual visit to the Far North with a display of Canada’s military capabilities has been turned on its heels by the horrific plane crash on Saturday that killed 12 people.
Experts say that despite the usual military posturing, the Prime Minister has come to understand that Canada’s claim to the North will be pressed by means other than guns and warships.
And the search-and-rescue operation designed to make a statement about Canadian sovereignty is actually an essential capability critical for northern economic development. This country is, after all, unlikely ever to be forced to defend her northern borders.
“I would say within the last year and a half he has become more pragmatic,” said Shelagh Grant, a researcher from Peterborough, Ont., whose book Polar Imperative talks about the need for Canada to exert its sovereign control over the vast expanse that holds so much potential for wealth and development.
“For the first time,” she said, “I think he understands that you can’t just send the army in camouflage rolling across the tundra and say we are protecting Arctic sovereignty.”
Those who study the North say infrastructure – including ports, search-and-rescue units, and navigation aids to be used by foreign ships plying the Northwest Passage – will effectively tell other countries that the Canadian Arctic is ours more forcefully than moving troops into the region.
“The things that the Harper government is actually doing are things that are worthwhile, that make sense,” said Michael Byers, the Canadian Research Chair in International Law and Politics at the University of British Columbia who has spent much time in the Arctic.
The cancelled search-and-rescue exercise, that would have included the Danes and Americans, was more about co-operation than confrontation. And the need for such capabilities was displayed by the air disaster this past weekend.
The most recent federal budget announced $150-million to help build a 140-kilometre all-season road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk – a conduit that holds huge potential for northern development but hardly a military manoeuvre.
As to those patrol warships that were promised in 2007? They have yet to arrive.
Peter McKenna, a political-science professor at the University of Prince Edward Island who was in Resolute earlier this month to observe search-and-rescue operations, says that the military displays are for domestic political consumption.
“The sovereignty issue is a bit of a red herring in that nobody is really contesting our sovereignty except in the Northwest Passage and Hans Island,” a chunk of rock that is claimed by both Canada and Denmark.
The expert consensus is that those disputes will be worked out through diplomatic means.
The experts also agree Canada needs regulatory control over northern waters, which is where they say Mr. Harper’s attention should be focused.
“My concern is that we might actually get those flag-of-convenience vessels starting to come through carrying hazardous cargos and posing an environmental risk, and the question is to what degree will Canada be prepared for that?” Prof. Byers said.