I recently wrote about the Yukon’s fiscal policy. Afterwards, someone asked me what the Yukon’s foreign policy should be.
It’s an interesting idea. Greenland is essentially a territory of Denmark, as we are of Canada. Greenland’s premier aspires to independence and control of Greenland’s foreign, trade and defence policy.
As a thought experiment to distract us from none of the Canadian teams making the NHL playoffs, let’s think about what the foreign minister of an independent Yukon would do.
On the foreign policy side, we could adopt policies quite similar to Canada’s almost across the board. Take Syria as an example. We could also make speeches expressing our concern about that country’s civil war, send zero jet fighters to the international coalition, and take a number of refugees so small the Germans consider it a rounding error.
Closer to home, one big issue would be the negotiation over the Yukon’s claim to parts of the Arctic Ocean. We would inherit Canada’s dispute with the U.S. over the Beaufort Sea maritime boundary, and unless Yellowknife caved in we would also have a dispute over the Yukon-N.W.T. maritime boundary. Farther out, Yukon negotiators would join the poker game with the Russians, Americans and other Arctic states over claims to the extended continental shelf.
The risk of a Yukon-Russia military confrontation would be low. Careful Yukonomist study of a high school atlas reveals that the Yukon’s continental shelf does not extend out to the North Pole.
Nonetheless, within a few hundred kilometres of the Yukon coast our claim would be strong over a whopping big chunk of the Arctic Ocean. There could be literally billions of dollars of oil and gas resources at stake in this negotiation, although we don’t know if developing them would ever be economic. Our new foreign minister could go up there to do publicity stunts like his Russian counterpart, but it would be a bit embarrassing since the expedition would have to leave from a port in Alaska or the N.W.T. since we don’t have one.
We could also plagiarize the Canadian approach on climate change. Our foreign minister could attend United Nations conferences and make impassioned speeches with commitments far in the future, then fly home to the five-bedroom oil-heated house with the pickup in the driveway. No problem.
Our new foreign minister’s job would be more active on the international economic policy front. We would be in favour of free trade. It makes no sense for us to pay extra for cars made in Ontario or cheese from B.C. when we could buy Subarus and New Zealand cheddar on the open market. We would also want access to as many countries as possible for our ore and oil and gas, assuming our economy recovered from the current recession enough to produce these in large quantities.
It would be embarrassing to have the same minister in charge of both being passionately worried about climate change and also aggressively opening markets for our oil and gas. Bigger governments split these jobs between two people. But I’m sure we could find someone who could handle it.
We would be more cautious about the investor-protection provisions of modern trade deals. We would not want to get sued for billions by multinational corporations because either our politicians or regulators did something to their investments in the Yukon. We would be of two minds about giving up the remaining local preference laws. On the one hand, if a French cafeteria company bids for a government contract more cheaply than a Yukon one, that would save the taxpayer money. On the other hand, local contractors and unions would want some protection against Outside competitors.
We would also look into the opportunity presented by offshore finance. Despite attempted clampdowns on offshore financial centres, the recent massive leak of client documents from that offshore law firm in Panama shows there is still good money to be made providing such services. If the in-laws of various dictators and Icelandic prime ministers can manage their money in Panama, why not the Yukon? We could also sell Yukon passports, although if we went as far as St. Kitts and Nevis did then we might get visa requirements slapped on us by Canada and the U.S. which would really impinge on weekend trips to Skagway.
On defence policy, we would face some tough choices. The cheapest option would be to again emulate Canada. The Canadian defence policy for the Yukon is essentially not to have one. The only threat is from the United States, and we couldn’t stop them anyway. This is presumably why the Canadian air force and army pulled out their bases a decade or two after the Second World War. We do still have the cadet camp and the Canadian Rangers, and the air force often visits during Rendezvous and lets kids check out the planes, which is nice.
We also have unstaffed North Warning System radar bases in the northern Yukon, which form part of the continent’s shared defence system. We could remain part of this, although it would get awkward if the US or Canada asked us to pick up the tab for maintaining our radar sites or upgrading them over the next decade or two. We could also continue the current Canadian position of not participating in missile defence (although the new Liberal government announced last month it is reconsidering this position), hoping that the base in Fort Greeley near Fairbanks shoots down anything headed our way.
That anti-North Korea movie The Interview was filmed in Vancouver not Whitehorse, so Pyongyang probably isn’t aiming at us, anyway.
Overall, these choices would be the cheapest option. When something does happen, the Americans have impressive bases in Alaska. On 9/11, for example, the jet fighters patrolling the Yukon when various Asian 747s landed here had stars on them, not maple leaves. The Americans also have piles of satellites, surveillance aircraft and nuclear submarines lurking around the Arctic and north Pacific. They are also investing in giant Triton surveillance drones and have a modern fleet of Boeing P-8 maritime patrol aircraft to keep track of offshore activity.
One wonders how effective Canada’s aging fleet of 1980s-era Orions is at patrolling the Yukon’s offshore. This will become more important as the Arctic ice pack shrinks because of climate change. Ditto for search and rescue. With more activity in the Arctic, scrambling rescue missions from places like Trenton, Ontario will become increasingly unacceptable. This distance is similar to the Norwegians running Barents Sea rescues from bases in Italy.
If we wanted to do something more than Canada is currently doing on maritime surveillance or search and rescue, it would cost serious money. The mind boggles at how much of our billion-dollar transfer payment we would have to take away from departments in Whitehorse to spend on aircraft, drones and a fully staffed base in the northern Yukon instead.
Of course, we wouldn’t have a billion-dollar transfer payment if we were independent. But that’s another question you can think about as you watch the St. Louis vs. Nashville/San Jose series on Hockey Night in Canada.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won this year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist. You can follow him on Channel 9’s “Yukonomist” show.