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The Canadian icebreaker Henry Larsen in Allen Bay, near Resolute Bay, Nunavut, in August, 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
The Canadian icebreaker Henry Larsen in Allen Bay, near Resolute Bay, Nunavut, in August, 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Earlier discussion

Arctic security: Fighting for the True North Add to ...

Despite our peaceful image, a new opinion poll finds that Canadians take a hard-line approach to Arctic security.

The survey found that the majority of Canadians see Arctic sovereignty as the country's top foreign-policy priority and believe that military resources should be shifted to the North from global conflicts.

Michael Byers, a University of British Columbia political science professor and Arctic expert, joined us earlier for a live discussion.

Prof. Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC. He is a project leader with ArcticNet, a federally funded consortium of scientists from 27 Canadian universities and eight federal departments. He is the author of Who Owns the Arctic?

Here's a transcript of the discussion:

Jill Mahoney: Hello everyone. Thanks for joining us. We'll get underway shortly. In the meantime, please start posting your questions.

Jill Mahoney: Hello Professor Byers. Thank you for joining us today to talk about Arctic security. You've read this poll - what do you consider as the key findings on Canadians' views on Arctic security?

Jill Mahoney: Click here and here to read stories I wrote about the poll.

Jill Mahoney: And click here to download a .pdf of the poll.

Michael Byers: Asking people whether they support Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic is like asking if they're happy when Canadian athletes win gold medals. It's the ranking priority questions that provide the real insights into what Canadians think, for they ask people to choose between different priorities. We soon discover that some priorities are, well, less of a priority than others. For Northern Canadians, improved health, social and educational services dominate the top priorities (60 percent plus scores), the environmental, disaster relief and search-and-rescue dominate the middle priorities (38-53 percent scores), and increasing the military presence ranks dead last (24 percent score). For Southern Canadians, infrastructure, health care, education and the environment are the top Arctic priorities (58-69 percent scores), with disaster relief and housing in the middle (40-49 percent scores). An improved military presence scores just 34 percent, only one percent point above the lowest score. In short, Canadians get the new Northern reality. The principal challenges facing the Arctic are environmental (especially climate change and oil spills) and social (especially the health, housing and education needs of the Inuit and other indigenous peoples). They understand the Cold War is over, that cooperation - whether through the Arctic Council or bilaterally - is the new order of the day.

Comment From John-Michael: Why don't we hear more from the opposition parties on Arctic sovereignty?

Michael Byers: Opposing Arctic sovereignty would be like opposing motherhood and maple syrup. So the opposition parties have decided to keep their heads down on this issue, rather than giving the Prime Minister more air time. Unfortunately, this denies Canadians the "market place of ideas" that is necessary for the development of good public policy. Mr. Harper gets to run with the issue, but there is no check-and-balance on the decisions he makes.

Jill Mahoney: Stephen Harper's position on Arctic sovereignty has changed since he became Prime Minister. How would you characterize the Conservatives' approach, both then and now?

Michael Byers: Initially, Mr. Harper's Arctic policy was based on a "use it or lose it" approach that emphasized the acquisition of new military equipment and an antagonistic attitude towards Russia (remember the complaints about Russian bombers in international airspace). But last year, there was a marked shift towards a new emphasis on Northern development and an Arctic Foreign Policy Statement that commits Canada to supporting the Arctic Council and opening negotiations on our boundary disputes. It's almost as if the government commissioned its own poll -- similar to the one just released by the Munk School -- that showed how Canadians are prioritizing human and environmental security in the North.

Jill Mahoney: Here's a comment from a Northerner. Prof. Byers, any thoughts?

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