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Harper is Not Putting Canada (or the Canadian Arctic) First

The Throne Speech suggests Canada still lacks a viable strategy to secure its Arctic interests, argues Robert Murray.

By: /
22 October, 2013
By: Robert Murray
Vice-President, Research, Frontier Centre for Public Policy; Adjunct Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Alberta.

If observers of Canada’s foreign policy had high hopes for the 2013 Speech from the Throne, they were sadly disappointed.  The majority of the speech was dedicated to the economy and promoting consumerism, with a series of strategic lines about Canadian patriotism inserted throughout.  At a time when Prime Minister Stephen Harper is receiving considerable criticism for his foreign policy stances on various issues, particularly his ongoing retreat from the United Nations system, many believed that the Throne Speech would be a good opportunity for Harper to silence his critics and propose a new direction or major initiative for Canada’s place in the world.  Instead, Harper returned to rhetoric and policy ideas that had served him well early in his time as Prime Minister, especially pertaining to Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.

In a somewhat surprising move, the Throne Speech announced a return of the government’s focus to the Canada First defence strategy, originally introduced in 2008.  At the heart of this vision for Canada’s security and defence is the development and protection of Canada’s northern interests.  At the time of its initial release, it was believed that Harper was moving the country toward a far more realist foreign policy, focusing on national issues over international engagements.  This would have helped to explain the withdrawal from multilateral arrangements and the strong rhetoric the Harper government used when describing Canada’s place in the world, its military history, and the need for a bolstering of military resources in the Arctic.  Along with the Canada First doctrine was a series of promises by Harper to invest significant financial and human resources into the high north, through naval capabilities, research and science initiatives, economic development, and environmental protection.

What is noteworthy about the mention of Canada First in the Throne Speech is that it naturally begs the question of what happened to it between 2008 and 2013.

After it was originally released, the government found itself in a predicament where it had made promises about Arctic sovereignty but quickly realized it had neither the economic resources, nor the political will, to carry them out.  While the world was in the midst of an economic recession, it would have been political suicide for the government to announce ice breakers, naval vessels, and patrol ships when Canadians were busy looking for jobs.  Further, observers noted that even in 2008, the commitments made by the Harper government relating to the Arctic were impossible to meet on the timelines initially presented, so the intention was never to rapidly enact the strategy in the Arctic to begin with.

What Canadians have seen since that time is a marginal investment in the Arctic Region, a yearly trek by the Prime Minister (often leading to photo ops on 4-wheelers or shooting rifles), and little progress in the hopes of ever actually protecting or developing Canada’s northern interests.  More importantly, while Canada has been slow to implement the essential resources for its Arctic sovereignty, other states have been far more efficient and aggressive in staking their claims in an increasingly complex Arctic Region.  Arctic states, like Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Russia and the United States have all invested substantially in their northern development and military technology, while Arctic-interested states like China, India and Great Britain have also begun to seek opportunities in the high north for resource extraction and military superiority.

According to the Throne Speech, “Our Government is securing our Northern sovereignty; promoting prosperity for Northerners; protecting our Arctic environmental heritage; and giving the people of the North a greater say in their own affairs.”  The Speech then notes that as the world’s eyes look north, the government “will not rest” until it sees through a series of promises grounded in the Canada First strategy.  These initiatives include the completion of the Dempster Highway, the continued defence of the seal hunt, the completion of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station, the commitment to discover the fate of Franklin’s Arctic expedition, and the operationality of the Nanisivik port.  What is left to ponder is precisely how these initiatives will help secure Canada’s northern borders.

Harper’s vision for Canada’s place in the world and Arctic sovereignty were popular in 2008, but there is nothing new here and one wonders why.  The world has changed since 2008, and other states have made great strides in living up to their Arctic claims, while Canada has been left behind.  If Harper truly wants to put Canada first, he owes it to the country to come up with new strategies that reflect the realities of the contemporary Arctic and Canada’s limited capability to protect its own interests.

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