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the north

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to media on the Historic Kinsol Trestle a wooden railway north of Shawnigan Lake, B.C., on Jan. 7, 2014.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

This is part of The North, a Globe investigation of unprecedented change, to the climate, culture and politics of Canada's last frontier. Join the conversation with #GlobeNorth

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.


Do you think Canada would ever do the same? Encourage people to use the Northwest Passage?

Well it's not something we're doing today. It's conceivable but obviously to do that we would need much better presence, ability to do all the things I said before; the ability to assert our sovereignty and be present, ability to enforce environmental regulation, and economic regulation for that matter, ability to make sure our sovereignty is fully respected. Because, obviously, major shipping through that would imply a need for a really strong and effective range of government presence in a way that does not exist today.

Sometimes when people talk about the Arctic they try to bring in the model of Antarctica. I'm talking about whether the Arctic should be internationalized. Some say the Antarctic is a good model and the Arctic should be managed and governed by all countries. There's others who say the Arctic should be managed and governed by countries that have Arctic territory. What I wanted to ask you is should decision making regarding the Arctic be managed like Antarctica or should it be the domain of countries with Arctic coastline and territory?

The government's position is unequivocally the latter. Unequivocally. The … Antarctic model is absolutely and completely unacceptable to the government of Canada and to the people of Canada and we want to make sure that that kind of thinking is not part of any government department – of any part of the government of Canada. It is not the thinking of the Canadians who live in our Arctic. Canada's Arctic is unequivocally Canadian sovereign territory and that Canadian sovereignty is proudly and strongly supported by the people who live there. Of course, in terms of obviously much of the Arctic … the Arctic Ocean itself is obviously international, much of it. And of course we want to co-operate on that and co-operate with our neighbours.

But any suggestion that we will in any way renounce or limit our sovereignty over our territory is something that I believe in unacceptable, not just to this government but unacceptable to any significant segment of the Canadian public.

So how does this translate into your approach to membership and rights at the Arctic Council?

Well, it's been a concern. It's been a concern. Now, it should be clear that membership at the Arctic Council is restricted to states that have sovereignty – full membership, [that is] – and permanent indigenous representatives. There's been a lot of observer countries admitted. Our concern with that, and unfortunately, to be blunt about it, I think frankly this had already gone way too far before we became government. But given that that is the precedent that has been established, we're prepared to have a significant number of observers as long as they understand and respect the sovereignty of the permanent members. And as long as their presence doesn't override or impede upon the deliberations of the permanent members. So I think it's a matter of balance. There's a difference between being an observer to an organization and being a full participant. And as long as that is respected, I think it works and it recognizes that other countries will be present in the international areas.

But our participation – let me be absolutely clear on this – Canada's participation in the Arctic Council under this government is predicated on the notion that this is an association of sovereign states. The Arctic Council is a forum where we act to co-operate but in no way – that in no way – impinges on our sovereignty over our own territory.

I'd like to ask you about ...

I am glad you raised this issue, Steve, if I can be really honest with you. Because this is a sleeper issue. I think it's important for Canadians to understand that in some circles this view does exist, that our Arctic should be internationalized. People who sometimes criticize what we're doing in our North are doing so because this is in fact their real deal. They're not complaining about our government having a sovereignty agenda merely because they don't like military investments. They may not like them. They're actually complaining for a deeper philosophical reason: they actually don't really support Canada's sovereignty in this area. So I think it's important that … You're the first one to ever raise this with me. Because we've had a lot of chats about this in our government. This view does exist. It does exist in some academic and bureaucratic circles and I think most Canadians would be shocked to learn it even exists.

Within the Canadian government, you mean, as well?

I am not going to name people but I think that view exists in circles. I think that view exists. But I can tell you it's not an acceptable view to Canada's elected government.

I guess the challenge is always if you don't let certain people into the club [the Arctic Council] they'll start their own club. Right?

Yeah. That's different than … And that ultimately has been the argument that we have agreed with in terms of admitting observers [to the Arctic Council]. Although the government's position has been to restrict the growth of observers only to sovereign states. Because it was beginning to become not just sovereign but non-sovereign observers as well. It was just becoming …. Literally everybody in the world wanted to be in the Arctic Council. So, look, I think that's an argument. But to the extent there is an underlying argument of people who are actually trying to turn the Arctic Council into some kind of international governance model that washes away the notion of sovereignty in the Arctic is a different agenda. I don't believe it's an agenda that is supported by any of the Arctic states, by the way. I don't believe it's an agenda that would even be entertained by any of the Arctic states. But it is an agenda that exists and it's important that Canadians recognize when people criticize what the government is doing in the Arctic, this is often what is driving them. That they actually don't support the notion of sovereignty in this part of the world and as I say, that's just a view that Canadians don't agree with.

What is the drawback of allowing this other view to take hold?

Well, obviously Canada would lose its sovereignty over a significant part of its territory and the entire struggle of this country from essentially 1812 onwards has been that the northern part of North America will be the home of a separate and independent nation.

I would like to talk about the Arctic promises, the Northern strategy. Many people give you a lot of credit for what you have done up there. But they also say the promises have started to pile up and far exceed the deliverables. I am thinking about the patrol ships, the Diefenbaker, Nansivik [naval facility]. There are delays that have stretched on in some cases five or 10 years. There is a history of prime ministers promising and not delivering. Can you address the concerns?

Well, first of all I think that you are actually misstating the general perception. I think the overwhelming general perception in the North is that – and it is a fact – that no government has paid more attention and actually delivered more in the North than this government.

I mean, it isn't even a contest. We have done more and delivered more than several previous governments combined. Now, is that to say there aren't cases of delay? Yeah, there are.

Really, if you look at those, in fairness, where there have been some delays in the timelines, they are principally in the area of the shipbuilding. Shipbuilding and obviously the Nanisivik naval facility related to that, because there is no reason to rush the naval facility in the absence of progress on the shipbuilding.

And really the primary reason that occurred, Steve, is the government ultimately decided to make the shipbuilding specifically for the North part of the government's broader national shipbuilding procurement strategy, which did cause a delay. But we believe, as you know we have, in the national shipbuilding procurement strategy, the objective goes beyond merely a greater Arctic presence. It also is about fundamentally the re-equipping of the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Coast Guard over the long term. As you know we are at really critical junctures with those two forces. They essentially have to be comprehensively re-equipped over the next generation. And we wanted to do so in a way that is good for the Canadian shipbuilding industry – that we provide good, solid, long-term marketable shipbuilding contractors and end the boom and bust cycle.

So the government ended up putting that into a larger, much more complex strategy. But in no way has the government backed off doing it. It's important to note that in all of the areas – even those areas where there have been delays – there has been progress. Contracts have been let. Work is going on at the Nanisivik naval site. Design contracts have been let on these various ships. So the work is proceeding. So there should be no doubt about the fact that these things are going to happen. But in a couple cases they are going to take a bit longer than was originally anticipated.

When you came into office, right off the bat you made it clear the Arctic, the North was going to be part of your legacy. Where did you draw inspiration for that or what prompted you to make what was obviously a very determined decision?

We actually said it in the 2006 election campaign. That was a big event, in Winnipeg [where the Conservatives announced their northern strategy] as you recall. I think even the 2006 northern tour and 2007 we really started to flesh it out. Look, I will really go back. I have thought about this question.

When I was leader of the opposition I was increasingly concerned by the direction that had been happening in the country – I guess I will say the previous government – but the direction that had been happening with regard to our vision of Canadian nationhood. I thought it had been slipping away.

And what I mean by that is what I saw happening was … Canada is a fascinating country and for over 200 years has gone through crises that are quasi-existential, one would say. Maybe existential. But certainly along those lines. Or somewhat along those lines. And so Canadian nationhood has always had to be defined.

And what I saw happening in the decade or so that preceded our government coming to office was a kind of a notion of Canadian nationhood that was becoming nothing more than anti-Americanism.

Now look, in my judgment … being different from the Americans is actually on some level fairly fundamental to our notion of what it is to be Canadian and what Canada is all about.

But, given that the Americans are our best friends, closest neighbours and most crucial allies and customers, defining ourselves as anti-American is really in my judgment first of all is not a true Canadian nationalism and is something that not only sells this country short but frankly doesn't reflect well on the country.

And so I had been concerned about how we really work to revive a robust and positive vision of Canadian nationalism. And one of the many things, not the only thing, one of the things we identified was a renewed … it's in a sense going back to [former Progressive Conservative prime minister John] Diefenbaker – but a renewed emphasis on Canada's fundamental northern nature. That's a philosophical part. But not the least of which is to also remember there is in fact great economic opportunity opening up and in our judgment a great need to better serve the people in terms of infrastructure and supports and opportunities, to better serve the small number of Canadians who actually represent our presence and claim in that vast part of our country.

And so that was one thing we identified as kind of our view of a positive nationalism.

And then I will say quite bluntly what happened in 2006 and onward was when we started to broach these things – and put this out there – is Canadians responded so overwhelmingly positively that the government then developed a full-blown long-term strategy. Because, to be frank, we've spent a fair bit of money up there and no one ever says it's not money well spent.

Because even if the northern population is small and the number of Canadians who even go North is small, they get the opportunity and they get the vision that is so fundamentally linked to our country's history.

On a personal level, I've always been fascinated by Canadian history and I've had an interest in d'Iberville fighting the Hudson's Bay Company and Henry Hudson and Frobisher and all the great explorers. So I have kind of a personal fascination with it but as I say, both in terms of a positive vision of nationalism and as a concrete set of opportunities and obligations for the country, Canadians respond well to it. And I think it's really something worth doing.

Is there anything you might want to add?

We will make sure we give you a list of where we're at on everything. I think overwhelmingly, in terms of our work in the North, overwhelmingly, we are in fact on schedule, on budget. We're certainly not backing off anything. In terms of the suggestion there's more to do. Or that even as big as the government's plan is, it's not big enough, I would say that's actually the better criticism.

But the fact is that –and this is another thing in terms of my own understanding of the history. Canada's investment, historically … the government of Canada took over the northern and Arctic territories in the 1870s and 1880s and our presence and investments for much of our history have been shockingly minimal. Shockingly. Frankly until the – when one gets into the Arctic [because] a lot of Canadians confuse the North with the Arctic, the true Arctic, Nunavut and the northern part of the Northwest Territories, Canada had almost no presence until the 1950s. Like almost none. There were periodic explorations, Captain Bernier and the Arctic expeditions. These were important things but they were largely one-offs. The first real infrastructure development occurred largely through the American military in the Second World War – which in and of itself should tell you something about the risk that our long neglect was actually creating.

So compared to Greenland or northern Norway, to this day, even with everything the government is doing, our relative, you know, just infrastructure presence is still minimal. Compare Russia. Compare Siberia. We have a long way to go. But you know we've got to start it somewhere.

I think getting our first functioning fishing harbour in Pangnirtung, getting our first actual road in Arctic territory. It's the first actual road of any significance…the [all-season] road to Tuktoyaktuk. Obviously, getting better housing. … We are so far behind. We are decades behind.

I guess the hope is the commodity super-cycle can help.

It can but the reality is that a lot of these [private] investments are really impeded by the lack of infrastructure: there is no airport, there is no road, there is no port. There is none, anywhere near. And these are really serious impediments to even the most lucrative potential venture. And of course on top of that, often no trained people and other things.

So we've got a long way to go. I think what we're doing is important. I think it's big. It's important and I think notwithstanding some delays it's going ahead pretty well.

I will hope this will be a vision that will outlast my prime-minister-ship. Because to be effective it will need to. It needs to be – You asked me about the vision? – over another generation. It needs to be at least that long.

In 25 years, do we expect more people living there? What will be the hallmarks of this?

There are going to be more people because birth rates there are high and in some cases this is a bit of a concern. But really what there has to be is not simply more people; there has to be more people employed. And more activity for those people. That's the fundamental thing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.