When Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party won a minority victory in last year’s federal election, conventional wisdom held that it marked the beginning of a new, friendlier era in Canada-U.S. relations (the election campaign having seen a war of words between Paul Martin, the sitting Prime Minister, and David Wilkins, the U.S. ambassador to Canada).
Conventional wisdom, then, was surprised by Harper’s first Parliament Hill press conference as Prime Minister-designate, when he went out of his way to… bash Wilkins over the ambassador’s challenge to Canada’s sovereignty over arctic waterways. Said Harper:
It is the Canadian people we get our mandate from, not the ambassador of the United States… The United States defends its sovereignty, and the Canadian government will defend our sovereignty.
Fighting words. And not a bad political move, it must be said, for an incoming Prime Minister whose detractors had tried to paint him as a stooge of the current U.S. administration.
Also, while few southern Canadians ever step foot in the arctic, most of us feel good about the fact that it is ours. Arctic sovereignty a frozen apple pie issue for us.
It would not be the last time Harper played the arctic sovereignty card. In fact, arctic sovereignty has become a central item in the Conservative agenda. Here’s what Harper said on a visit to the arctic this past August:
Protecting national sovereignty, the integrity of our borders, is the first and foremost responsibility of the national government – a responsibility which has too often been neglected. Canada’s new government understands the principal of arctic sovereignty – use it or lose it. We recognize the north as a vast storehouse of energy and mineral resources. We know that climate change is increasing accessibility to its treasures and we understand the challenges our sovereignty may face in the future
Another thing we know is that the Russians are coming, claiming sovereignty of their own by planting their flag on the arctic seabed, a move that – in the words of the reporter in this Fox News story – angered the “normally subdued Canadian government”.
The competing photo ops and sovereignty claims come as global warming changes the facts on the ground in the North. In a recent issue of the Walrus magazine, Franklyn Griffiths of the University of Toronto described how these changes are affecting Inuit life from northern Labrador to the western arctic. One of his most memorable findings: A rising demand for bikinis in the North.
Said noted Inuit environmental activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier:
“For more than 20 years Inuit hunters and elders have reported melting permafrost, thinning sea ice, receding glaciers, “invasion” of species of animals not previously seen – grizzly bears are coming much further north than previously, and are even mating with polar bears – increased coastal erosion, longer and warmer summers, and shorter winters. The magnitude of these changes varies from place to place, but the trend is consistent.”
The changes on the ground have implications for the arctic’s importance within Canada. The northwest passage, for instance, could become more crowded with international ships in coming years.
Harper’s main response so far is to try to boost Canada’s military presence in the North. Inuit leaders argue that pure military solutions ignore the fact that arctic sovereignty is best boosted by investing in the lives of Canadian citizens who already live there.
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