Just under a year ago, Canadians elected a new federal government. For John Higginbotham, an Arctic expert and fellow at Carleton University in Ottawa and at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, it was the perfect time to gather Canada’s experts on Arctic policy and federal officials for a roundtable to discuss the region’s most pressing issues.
At a celebration on Sept. 29 marking the 20th anniversary of the Arctic Council, Higginbotham launched “North of 60: Toward a Renewed Canadian Arctic Agenda,” a collection of essays by a dozen Canadian experts who attended last year’s meeting.
The essays and interviews cover a broad range of topics, from Arctic shipping ports and defence to Inuit relations and Northern governance.
Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Heather Exner-Pirot, the managing editor of the Arctic Yearbook, Michael Byers, Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, and Whitney Lackenbauer, professor of history and co-director of the Centre on Foreign Policy and Federalism at St. Jerome’s University in the University of Waterloo, are among those who have contributed to the book.
Thursday’s celebration of the Arctic Council, hosted by CIGI, Global Affairs Canada and Carleton University, expected to draw a number of key people involved in Canadian domestic and Arctic policy, including Mary Simon, the minister of indigenous and northern affairs’ special representative on Arctic issues, and Okalik Eegeesiak, the chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council. Stéphane Dion, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, was expected to deliver an address on Canada’s international Arctic policies at the event (he was unable, however, due to travel to Israel for the funeral of Shimon Peres.)
Arctic Deeply’s Hannah Hoag spoke with Higginbotham, who is also the head of CIGI’s Arctic program, in advance of the event, about the book and its perspectives on Canadian Arctic policy.
What motivated you to launch this discussion on Canada’s Arctic policy?
We had a new government, we had obviously many pressing policy issues related to the Arctic, so we brought together a group of about a dozen leading Canadian experts on the Arctic and about 30 senior federal officials for an informal, off-the-record roundtable on Arctic policy shortly after the election. It helped get the people from the federal government thinking about the challenges they were going to face in helping the government find its own voice on Arctic issues. The results of those discussions can be found in our book.
In the introduction of the book, you call for a revitalization of Canada’s Arctic policy. What were some of the things identified during the roundtable in need of change or updating?
There was a consensus that we are facing urgent challenges in the Arctic, particularly related to the impact of climate change on the Arctic. There is a wide consensus that the federal government and others are not investing sufficiently in infrastructure, both economic and social, in the Arctic. I think that on virtually every front – social, security, sovereignty – we face important questions, and in each case the authors have done their best to make action-oriented practical recommendations.
A new Liberal government took power almost a year ago, after an election campaign where the Arctic was barely mentioned by any party. What has characterized the government’s Arctic policy taken thus far?
The government has not yet focused particularly on the Arctic although its priorities of climate change, infrastructure investment, re-engagement of Aboriginal people and spirit of openness and consultation are all attractive. One hopes that they will be increasingly adapted to the special needs and strengths of the Canadian Arctic.
How does Canada’s Arctic policy compare to its Arctic neighbours?
We have a very democratic and responsive system of governance in the Arctic with the creation of Nunavut, with the land claims agreements and the establishment of territorial governments and the devolution of power to different degrees to those governments, and I think we can be proud of that. But in respect to sustainable economic development, the investments of political and financial capital have not been proportionate to the needs of the Arctic.
Russia, for example, puts enormous investment into the Arctic, in dozens of icebreakers, including some of the very largest in the world, and nuclear icebreakers. It sees the Arctic as the future of Russia, as the Arctic Ocean melts in the next 20 to 30 years.
Canada has not invested much in Arctic navigation, but it is an area that will become enormously significant for the Arctic in coming years. There will be opportunities for employment, fisheries, tourism, access to natural resources and transportation. We are behind all of our neighbours on the economic side.
How is this report different from others on Canada and the Arctic?
It is useful to promote a dialogue among Canadians about what sort of Arctic they want and what Arctic policy should be. We urged the authors to put forward constructive criticisms and honest suggestions for improvement in Canadian Arctic policy, and we hope that it will assist the government in making those decisions over the rest of its term.
This interview first appeared on Arctic Deeply.