Canada has always projected itself as the Great White North. Prime ministers have promised to open it since the 1950s to little avail, and we fly into nationalist panic attacks whenever a great empire shows interest in the North’s riches.
Despite these rare blips of interest, history shows that Canada rarely gets serious over the Arctic. A Canadian can live and die in a Toronto suburb, but most consider the Arctic their own.
Worse, we risk sticking to the routine as a new round of threats rise following the effects of global warming and oil supply reduction.
There is a chance we can finally wake up from our collective fantasy. A new book, Arctic Front: Defending Canada in the Far North, is a call to arms for a new era in Canadian culture and politics toward the North.
Call it the Arctic Awakening.
Currently, our cultural claim as an Arctic or Northern nation is all talk and no walk.
“For every person that’s been to Baffin Island, there’s a thousand that have been to Disney World,” said author William Morrison in a phone interview.
But we’ve been touchy about the North ever since we negotiated our border with the Alaska Panhandle in 1903. This contradictory image is what drove the four authors behind Arctic Front over the edge.
“What happened is we got really mad with the rhetoric that started about two years ago over Arctic sovereignty,” said co-author Greg Poelzer. “It was basically repeating what we’ve heard over and over again.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared he would speed up resource extraction, military presence and stand up to those evil Ruskies and their flag-planting Arctic submarine. His tough talk gave the impression that a new dawn was rising over the Arctic.
He wasn’t the first.
John Diefenbaker’s Arctic vision built the Dempster Highway and little else. Pierre Trudeau enacted new laws for the environment but failed to declare full sovereignty in the Arctic high seas. And Brian Mulroney’s militarized northern presence never really stuck.
Yet the fantasy of our Arctic heritage lives on.
“The motivation behind this is making us feel that we are not American,” said Morrison.
One way of distinguishing ourselves from the United States is emphasizing our more northerly geography, he said.
It’s a lot of hot air at times. The Canadian government has been slow to sponsor vigorous exploration and research.
A Canadian didn’t discover an island in the North until Vilhjalmur Stefanson discovered Borden Island, Lougheed Island, Meighen Island and Mackenzie King Island during the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913-16.
The rest of the Arctic Archipelago had been discovered by Danes, Norwegians, Americans and the British throughout most of the 19th century.
There have been sparsely timed voyages to the Arctic seas throughout our history, but Canada had never really been spurred to open up the North in a consistent fashion. We’ve always remained obsessed with our life along the 49th parallel until the so-called “embarrassment factor” kicked in.
When a foreign nation makes a move for something of value in the North, Canada always rushes to prove its occupation in a flurry of law enforcement and infrastructure building.
It happened with the Klondike Gold Rush after American miners began setting up their own court for trials at Fortymile.
But it applies to all forms of missing governance.
“This is currently evident in events that take place in First Nations communities across Canada – Davis Inlet and Kashechewan are painful recent example,” write the authors.
In the frankest terms, Canadians only care about the North and its inhabitants when we embarrass ourselves in the world’s eye.
This usually leaves us with every new government trying to rebuild a legacy that never lasts.
As prime minister Louis St. Laurent once quipped in the House of Commons, “Apparently we have administered these vast territories of the North in an almost continuing state of absence of mind.”
The North would continue to be the whim of the South’s ignorance and folly through the Cold War and post-Cold War years.
Canadian and American strategists didn’t see the Arctic as something worthy of building in itself, but rather a giant open flank exposed to Russia.
And now we could be repeating the same mistakes.
Prime Minister Harper oversimplified the Arctic quagmire when he said it was a case of “use or lose it” in 2007. The rhetoric made it seem like our land is at risk, but that’s never been the case.
The media has helped inflate fears over the Northwest Passage too. The fact is that Canada and the United States have quietly decided to agree to disagree until the international Law of the Sea negotiations conclude. Each of the polar nations is currently gathering information to make their case on their territorial claims, and Canada will be finished in 2013.
The Northwest Passage is a more difficult issue, but it too has been vulnerable to nationalistic fears.
Northern Canada and the Arctic suffer from a southern mind set. These regions need more northern-based solutions that aren’t looking at temporary visions.
Other polar countries have a stronger Arctic presence for various reasons. Russia could force hundreds of thousands of people to live above the Arctic Circle, and Alaska has been heavily militarized for decades.
“(In Scandinavia,) the countries are smaller and presumably the lines of communications are easier,” said Morrison.
There’s a closer bond between southerners and northerners there too, he said.
Scandinavian legislatures were passing laws on the indigenous Sami people hundreds of years ago, he said.
“Until the Second World War, there was nothing going on in the Northwest Territories (from the Souths’ perspective,)” he said.
The bright side is that the North is rising without waiting for Canada.
If anyone is going to show how to govern the Arctic for its own intrinsic worth, it is those who live here.
Nunavut, for example, is increasing its governance role, and that is a slow but promising change.
“Forty years ago, Ottawa didn’t want the North to run its own show because they were afraid the North would mess up development or want to big a share of it,” said Morrison.
The partnership of First Nations in projects in the Mackenzie Delta project is a sign that power has shifted.
“Paternalism is a lot less strong than it was,” he said.
And with the self-government agreements asserting themselves in the Yukon, the next century will show more solutions coming from aboriginals and permanent residents who live here rather than the Southerners who have pretended to know it better.
Instead of making Arctic policy frightening or unbearably dull, Arctic Front reveals the subject as one of the most interesting foreign policy questions of the 21st century. Canada has an exciting future ahead of it that’s barely around the corner, and Yukoners have a front row seat to a refiguration in global trade, a resurgence in aboriginal governance, and another chapter in the coming-of-age of this country.
Northerners hold a stake in how Canada will redefine itself. It’s up to them to turn our knee-jerk pride into long-term nation-building.
Arctic Front: Defending Canada in the Far North is written by William Morrison, Greg Poelzer, P. Whitney Lackenbauer, and Ken Coates.
Contact James Munson at