Prime Minister Stephen Harper has returned to the North for his annual Arctic trip. This year, his focus is on economic development. This is an important task, given the challenges facing many of these communities. But lurking behind all the North's social, economic, health and education requirements remains the need to ensure that promises to protect Canada's Arctic sovereignty and security are met.
Canada's Arctic neighbours, allies and "friends" have signalled that they will be respectful of our northern interests only as long as these interests do not conflict with their own. They have also indicated that they're much more willing to respect the interests of those who have the ability to enforce and protect them. If we are serious about protecting the Canadian North, we need to ensure the world knows we're serious.
Events make this clear. For example, most Canadians are aware that our government has an ongoing diplomatic dispute with the United States over delimiting our maritime border in the Beaufort Sea. But most Canadians are probably unaware that, in 2009, the United States took a major step to challenge the Canadian position on an issue that should have easily been resolved. That year, Washington placed a moratorium on all commercial fishing in its northern economic exclusive zone – specifically including a part of the Beaufort Sea that Canada claims as its own.
Canada is equally concerned about climate change and new fishing trends in northern waters. The U.S. decision was a very good one. But making it unilaterally was not. This clearly demonstrated that while the United States was willing to do the environmentally smart thing, it wasn't willing to do it in co-operation with Canada.
There are even more confounding developments regarding the Canadian Northwest Passage and the Russian Northern Sea Route. In a very necessary move, Mr. Harper's government recently made it mandatory for all foreign vessels entering Canadian Arctic waters to report their presence. This allows Canadian officials to ensure that these vessels are operating in compliance with our Arctic environmental laws and regulations.
Germany, the United States and Singapore all issued diplomatic protests at this very reasonable action. While Canada faces this diplomatic opposition, Russia has taken much greater steps to establish complete control over its northern waters. The Russians make ship operators request permission, then charge a fee and require all foreign vessels to proceed in convoys under icebreaker escort while sailing the Northern Sea Route – substantially stronger and more controlling steps than Canada's. And yet there seems to be no diplomatic manoeuvring against these actions. In fact, companies are lining up to sail the route.
Why is Russia's action accepted while Canada's is opposed? Where are the protests by Singapore and Germany? The only conclusion is that the international community is much more sensitive about offending Russian interests than Canadian ones.
Canada needs to ensure it has healthy northern communities. But it also needs to ensure that the international community respects Canadian interests. The world will support our position only when we are seen as capable of backing it up, whether the issue is fishing or shipping. Canadians need to ensure that promises to provide such capabilities – in the form of Arctic offshore patrol ships and new icebreakers – are delivered.
Rob Huebert is associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.