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Hard choices in the Arctic for Trudeau’s Liberals

Both challenges and opportunities await Canada’s new government in
the Arctic. A planned approach is needed and soon, says CIGI’s 
John Higginbotham. 

By: /
16 February, 2016
Two Canadian Forces Griffon helicopters fly from York Sound to Iqaluit after taking part in the Operation Nanook military exercise on Baffin Island, Nunavut August 26, 2014. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
By: John Higginbotham

Senior fellow, Carleton University and CIGI

During one of the 2015 election debates, Justin Trudeau accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of lacking an Arctic policy, calling it “Big Sled, No Dogs.”  

The idea was that the Conservative government’s Arctic record was empty rhetoric on investment in northern communities and on security in the face of Russian expansion in nearby waters. Trudeau tweeted that he had a “different plan.”

There is no sign yet of new Liberal government action on the Canadian Arctic, or how to lead, organize and pay for a planned approach over the longer term. Meanwhile, Arctic issues have become critical as climate change opens the Arctic Ocean and international involvement grows.

Canada’s Arctic neighbours have developed impressive new Arctic plans and investments. But Canadian Arctic communities suffer because of yawning housing, social service and infrastructure gaps. The Arctic security landscape becomes darker and more complex.  

Considering the new government’s broad priorities, comprehensive Arctic development should be at the heart, not the margin, of its climate change, infrastructure investment, defence and indigenous engagement priorities.

The Arctic and its inhabitants are uniquely vulnerable to disappearing ice affecting traditional indigenous livelihoods, rising sea levels, coastal erosion, melting permafrost, methane release and more volatile weather.

These are examples of the Paris climate change conference’s “loss and damage” to Arctic communities, requiring urgent assistance from the Canadian government, like the kind Alaskan native communities will now receive from Washington after President Barack Obama’s historic 2015 visit to the Arctic

Smart adaptation to climate change is a key need of Canada’s Arctic citizens, going beyond such disaster relief. The mitigation of climate change is mainly a challenge to urban Canadians, not to its victims in the Arctic. 

The melting Arctic Ocean has a positive side for Canada. It could transform people’s livelihood in the Arctic, including new sustainable fishing and eco-tourism jobs, new carbon-saving shipping routes, sustainable development of the Arctic’s vast stranded mineral resources, innovative Arctic internet activities and modernized continental security infrastructure.

Only the federal government, in cooperation with stakeholders, has the resources and capacity for a new Canadian Arctic vision to make this happen. And of course strategic Arctic investment would stimulate economic growth in southern Canada.

But as the economy weakens, the line at the federal budget buffet is lengthening. The government will have to juggle immense and multiplying financial claims, for example from provinces and big cities with bottomless infrastructure wishlists, or from the hopeful wounded of the Stephen Harper years.   

Canada must find budgetary room for gradual long-term investment in Arctic gateways and corridors to give the Canadian Arctic the matrix of road, marine, air, energy and telecommunications infrastructure that all Arctic stakeholders, especially local communities and outside investors, require.    

A surge of culturally sensitive educational and social investments and relevant scientific work financed by the federal government is equally essential. 

In international relations, Canada has not yet worked out a balance between cooperation and containment in dealing with Russia post-Crimea in the Arctic, touching on a wide range of defence and diplomatic issues.    

Canada recently chaired the Arctic Council. It is in a strong position to build consensus on how to modernize this pivotal Arctic governance hub, honouring the 20th anniversary of the Ottawa Declaration (which created the council) in September 2016. 

Much remains to be done in grasping obvious Arctic bilateral cooperation opportunities, for example with Korea, Japan and China.

The prime minister’s March visit to Obama’s White House offers a unique opportunity to upgrade Canada-U.S. bilateral dialogue and cooperation with an Arctic-friendly president, for example on North American Arctic marine, energy, trade, environment and defence policies.

Given the federal decentralization of Arctic authority in both countries, experience shows leaders have to lead, or little happens.     

American agencies with Arctic responsibilities have developed impressive new policy initiatives under strong White House pressure over the last three years. A White House Arctic policy coordinator, Mark Brzezinski, was recently appointed by Obama.

Although not a model for Canada, Russia now has a powerful new Arctic Commission reporting to President Vladimir Putin to implement Russia’s massive Arctic oil, gas, icebreaker and surface transportation corridor strategies, in growing cooperation with China.

Despite its obvious northern failings, the Conservative government deserves some credit for making a start on safer Arctic navigation and harbours, for authorizing a new heavy Coast Guard icebreaker and a fleet of ice-capable naval vessels. It approved the new highway from Inuvik north to the Arctic Ocean.

Leona Aglukkaq’s unprecedented cabinet appointment and her Arctic Council chairmanship, emphasizing the economic welfare of Arctic peoples and her close cooperation with aboriginal organizations and territorial governments, should not be forgotten. 

The last government also devolved responsibility for onshore resource development to the Northwest Territories, a key governance step. It set up Polar Knowledge Canada and made useful investments through the Canadian Northern Development Agency.

History will tell whether the Conservative government went too far in demonizing Russia’s overall strategic intentions after Ukraine and Syria.

Trudeau would be wise to think about what will set him apart from the last guy’s Arctic record. He will certainly have to put his finger on the scale in upcoming internal budget and Arctic policy debates. The elements of a legacy Liberal government approach to the Canadian Arctic are there for sure, but some hard choices must be made now. 

This piece was first published by the Ottawa Citizen

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