Real threat to Arctic sovereignty is Canada

Bruce Hyer

Conservative Arctic policy has recently come to the forefront, as Canada took over the two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council last year. To no one’s surprise, Prime Minister Stephen Harper explicitly declared resource development to be the guiding focus of Canada’s chairmanship, while all but completely ignoring the alarming consequences of climate change for the Arctic, as well as setting (but not meeting) dubious military priorities.

Newly-minted federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq made the government position crystal clear in October when she rejected clear scientific evidence, incredibly declaring that climate change and its consequences for the Arctic were “debatable.” The same month, the National Energy Board approved an application by American petro-producer ConocoPhillips to begin drilling and fracking in the Northwest Territories’ Canol Shale Formation. This is the first time such activity will be permitted in Canada’s Arctic without undergoing a full environmental assessment. The fracking has begun, despite hundreds of signatures from the small, remote communities affected by the decision. Allowing information about fracking chemicals will be withheld; as such information is a “trade secret.” It is likely that any economic benefits from impetuous Arctic resource extraction will be dwarfed by the immense and growing costs of climate change. According to the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy (a body conveniently axed by the Conservatives), climate change could cost the Canadian economy up to $43-billion annually by 2050. The Parliamentary Budget Office reported that extreme summer weather events in the Prairies cost the government more than $4-billion this year alone—and that’s excluding the Toronto flood and recent winter storms.

Regarding Arctic military security policy, Harper had promised an increased military commitment in the Arctic ... while simultaneously stating his intention to lower military spending. According to Byers and Webb’s incisive and important 2007 report for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, “Titanic Blunder,” (, Harper announced his intention to purchase six to eight naval Arctic/offshore patrol ships and build a deep-water port in the North. These plans have since been delayed by several years.

Harper’s claimed “security concerns” in the Arctic are out of touch with geopolitical realities. Cooperation between Arctic nations is stable and he knows this. He has been quoted several times stating (outside of Canada) that there is absolutely no concern regarding Arctic cooperation, and all participant countries are in agreement on principal, not seeing any major future issues. In January 2010, Harper himself told the Secretary General of NATO “there is no likelihood of Arctic states going to war.”

The Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence slammed Harper’s plans in 2007:

With defence on Canada’s littoral waters in disarray on our East, South [i.e. Great Lakes] and West coasts, the committee finds it unfathomable that the government has announced its intention to get the Canadian Navy much more involved in Canada’s northern waters, where little or no threat exists to the security of Canadians. Disagreements over Canada’s sovereignty in these waters are not going to be settled through the use of gunboats…Draining the Navy’s already inadequate budget to play such an inappropriate role makes no military sense.

Instead of focusing on real issues in the Arctic, Harper is using jingoistic rhetoric, playing on Canadian fears, patriotism, and his alleged love of our military to make his military procurement friends rich by buying costly equipment we don’t need or can’t use.

The CCPA report recommends: cancelling the procurement of the naval Arctic patrol ships; instead commissioning six to eight purpose-built high-speed offshore patrol ships; and rebuilding the Coast Guard icebreaker fleet taking into account changing ice conditions and the need for vessels to fill a paramilitary role.

These changes would give us valuable and versatile equipment that will help Canada address all of our true needs on all four coasts and not made-up security fears in the Arctic. Canada has the world’s longest coastline; the real threats to the northern Arctic are environmental, not military.

It is time for realistic programs for both environmental and military policies regarding Canadian Arctic ecosystems, geography, peoples, and communities. The best way to enhance and guarantee Arctic sovereignty is through sustainable communities and happy, prosperous, healthy people who live there. The Scandinavian countries have proactive policies to ensure that northern remote communities and peoples have equal economic opportunity and quality of life. For example, Sweden has a policy they call “All of Sweden must live.” Instead of imagining new problems to justify misplaced military spending priorities, we need to address the real issues we do have. We need sustainable resource development, smart military purchases, and Arctic prosperity, not dangerous rhetoric and foolish spending. The real threat to Arctic sovereignty in Canada is not Russians; it is right here at home.

Green Party MP Bruce Hyer represents Thunder Bay-Superior North, Ont.

Originally published in The Hill Times