The politicization of the Arctic

Commentary, Energy, Robert Murray

Canada’s Arctic claims continue to be a prominent aspect of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s policy agenda. Recent announcements, further technological investment, and emphasis on Arctic affairs in the government’s Throne Speech all speak to the fact that, since taking office, the Arctic has been one of the few policy areas the Harper government has not deviated from.

What have become more interesting than the Prime Minister’s Arctic strategy itself are the various reactions to it from Arctic experts, particularly academics. It is unsurprising that Opposition MP’s would criticize the government for either not being strong enough on Canada’s northern claims, or overemphasizing minor aspects of the high North, but increasingly, some Arctic experts have begun taking exception to the approach of the Canadian government.

Much of the criticism levelled at Harper from certain Arctic experts is derived from the belief that the government is misrepresenting the realities of the North. Rhetoric, hyperbole and myth have all been associated with some of the aspects Harper points to when justifying Canada’s powerful Arctic stance. While the Canadian government has been effective in pulling at Canadians’ heart strings by associating the Arctic with the Canadian identity, there are certainly problems with the way the Arctic is presented. Even so, the politics of the Arctic are truly becoming more apparent and this is what is presenting the largest problem of all.

Prior to the 2000s, the Arctic was popularly perceived as a barren, frozen and empty space that had little importance to Canada’s national interests beyond protecting against Russian flyover missions. The increase in rhetoric about the Arctic, and the government’s concentrated effort to link the high North with Canada’s national identity, has not only increased the Arctic’s prominence in Canadians’ every day vocabulary, but is now subject to the same kind of political and policy scrutiny as other aspects of Canadian politics. A series of themes seem to be emerging in Arctic affairs that are worthy of mention:

  1. There is no singular understanding of “sovereignty”. In fact, the notion of national sovereignty is among the most contested in the study and practice of politics and international relations today, so it is no surprise that when Harper invokes such a powerful concept, there is no consensus on exactly what it means for the country. Disagreements over the rights, responsibilities and legal parameters of sovereign states pervade international politics on a daily basis, and have long impacted key decisions of individual states and international institutions like the UN. As the study and political landscape of the Arctic move forward, so will the discussion about the nature, and limits, of sovereignty.
  2. The Arctic is important for more than one reason. Harper’s insistence on Arctic sovereignty for the purposes of Canadian national security is only one facet of a much larger, and incredibly complex, issue. Canada’s Arctic interests include national identity, human development, environmental issues, resource and energy issues, transportation issues, security calculations, international balance of power, and more. It is unfair, and arguably unwise, to reduce the Arctic to a select few themes in order to sell its importance to Canadians. Most everyone agrees that the Arctic should play a pivotal role in Canadian policymaking, but not at the expense of reality or for the purposes of political gain.
  3. Like every other facet of human life, the Arctic has been, and will continue to be, politicized. Chances are that individuals, including Arctic experts, who are not supportive of Harper and the Conservatives more generally, will not endorse the government’s Arctic strategy. Consensus on Arctic policy is highly unlikely across the spectrum of the many experts involved in Arctic research that spans many different fields of study, including the natural sciences, to ecology, to anthropology, to history, to political science, etc. As such, claims of neutrality and objectivity when evaluating the government’s approach to the Arctic should be taken with a grain of salt.

The increasing complexities of the Arctic region require sophisticated and diplomatic policy options. On one hand, it is bizarre to think there would ever be unanimity among Arctic observers on how the government is pursuing its strategy. On the other, the government needs to do a better job of listening to experts from across the political spectrum so as to avoid misrepresentations of the true situation in the Arctic. If the region is as important as Harper is claiming, the best policy will also be the best researched policy.