Skip to main content

Opinion We need an economic vision for the Arctic, but Canada lacks the leadership

John Higginbotham is a senior fellow at Carleton University and CIGI

An aerial view of ice on the Beaufort Sea on March 27. Moscow is moving to claim Arctic territory as barriers between Russia and North America melt. Yet still bitter temperatures pose an immediate threat to the Atlantic alliance’s troops defending icy waterways.

ANDREW TESTA/The New York Times News Service

We are in the dog days of summer, Parliament is not in session, a cold beer on the deck beckons and a federal election is less than three months away.

Meanwhile, the Arctic Ocean is on track toward another record-breaking summer shrinkage of the Arctic ice cap in both area and density.

Story continues below advertisement

This breathtaking trend is driving unprecedented thinking, interest and investment in Arctic economic development and military preparedness by all of Canada’s neighbours and competitors in the high north.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have tripled down on investment in Arctic liquefied natural gas energy exports, with ports, marine corridors, icebreaker tankers and enormous nuclear icebreakers that will eventually enable year-round shipping.

The Russian Northern Sea Route is now a link in China’s strategic Belt and Road Initiative. Russia continues to invest in significant and destabilizing Arctic military hardware, bases and exercises, working increasingly closely with China in a largely secret partnership reminiscent of Stalin and Mao in the 1950s.

As to intent, Russia remains in Crimea, and China creates what the United States deems illegal bastions on reefs in the South China Sea.

The U.S. government has awoken late and poorly prepared for this challenge, declaring it will not allow the Arctic Ocean to become a Russian lake, and that China has no special rights or role in the new Arctic.

A bill was recently introduced in the U.S. Senate for new Alaskan Arctic ports and marine transportation systems to support newly authorized heavy Coast Guard icebreakers and increasingly active U.S. Navy surface ships in the Arctic.

This bold plan stops short in the American half of the Beaufort Sea, where the Trump administration is encouraging oil and gas development as fast as the courts permit.

Story continues below advertisement

On the eastern side of the Beaufort, the Trudeau government’s oil and gas moratorium persists, communities suffer and enormous resources remain stranded.

The federal government has not found the starting blocks in the race to plan and invest regularly in core pan-Canadian Arctic marine, surface and military Arctic infrastructure.

Why is this happening? A good clue is the answer to the question: What became of the government’s Arctic Policy Framework (APF)?

People attend the float out ceremony of the nuclear-powered icebreaker 'Ural' at the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg, Russia on May 25.

ANTON VAGANOV/Reuters

The APF was originally billed as a blueprint for Canadian Arctic strategy and actions up until 2030, integrating domestic and international challenges and directions. For three years, the government has repeatedly promised, pirouetted and postponed the “co-development” and release of this framework.

Many hoped the result would be a bold and comprehensive white paper on the future realization of Canada’s nation-building project in the high north, balancing security, social, environmental, Indigenous and economic goals, especially through a long-term, wealth producing infrastructure plan.

Such a national Arctic investment plan with a strong maritime emphasis could enable the communities and regional governments to flourish in this new tough, competitive environment.

Story continues below advertisement

Instead, a patchwork of ad hoc departmental policies and budget announcements appeared, reflecting the progressive identity and social narrative of the Trudeau team, but before a guiding framework was developed and debated by northern and southern Canadians.

Some see the delays and false starts and ever-widening circles of stakeholder consultations with often peripheral players as a stealthy way to look good to distracted southern voters, diffuse ultimate federal responsibility for Arctic development and avoid budget commitments to serious nation building.

Now, if an APF statement appears, it will be seen at best as a self-congratulatory, retroactive and aspirational election document, the product of a well intended, but flawed policy-development process.

Thousands of hours of sincere effort by governments, stakeholders and officials fed into the APF, but to what end? There was no Arctic leadership from the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister or other senior ministers and their political gurus.

Luckily, we have two excellent, recent, forward-leaning Arctic reports from House and Senate Parliamentary committees, constructive statements by Indigenous leaders and recent warnings by Northwest Territories Premier Bob McLeod on Canada’s volatile Arctic challenges.

In the end, the Trudeau administration lacked the vision, discipline and machinery to produce a long-term plan for serious Canadian Arctic economic development and security policy.

Story continues below advertisement

The current approach is just not proportional to the challenges Canada will face in the Arctic.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter