The federal government’s announcement of its recent Arctic strategy has left one political expert experiencing a bout of deja-vu.
The announcement, officially dubbed Canada’s Northern Strategy, is basically a re-packaging of previous announcements, said Michael Byers, who holds a Canada Research Chair in global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia.
The Northern Strategy, unveiled Sunday in Ottawa, addresses Arctic sovereignty, the environment, northern governance, and social and economic development, issues that Byers said, “don’t have a lot of connection between them.”
More prominent initiatives include building a military training centre in Resolute Bay, expanding and modernizing the Canadian Rangers, a military reserve force, and a commitment to mapping the North’s continental shelf, to better define Canada’s Arctic border.
“All of the federal parties are gearing up for an election this fall and Arctic sovereignty is a great issue for the government,” said Byers. “It’s almost impossible for anyone to oppose investing in Arctic sovereignty.”
The strategy specifies $200 million to assist the Yukon, including funding for previously approved projects such as Mayo B.
“It’s amazing the amount of money being committed to the North if you start adding it together,” said Yukon Senator Dan Lang, who was in Ottawa for the announcement.
A great deal of money was promised to the North but much of the announcement can be chalked up to political posturing, said Byers.
“Our current prime minister is conscious of Canadian political history and has used it to his advantage in the last two federal elections,” he said.
“Previous prime ministers have campaigned on Arctic sovereignty and they’ve won.”
John Diefenbaker campaigned in 1958 on a “northern vision” and Brian Mulroney won a second majority in 1988 after promising to build the world’s largest icebreakers and nuclear-powered submarines to control the North.
These were all promises that were never made good on, said Byers
“This is one of the great ironies – several prime ministers have made promises about the Arctic and never actually delivered on them.”
This happens because of fiscal restraints but also because “Most Canadians don’t actually pay constant attention to what is happening in the North,” said Byers.
“They’ll be impressed by grand announcements but don’t actually notice when the promises are postponed or eventually cancelled.”
At the unveiling on Sunday, Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Chuck Strahl said the federal government is making the North “one of its top priorities.”
“This is not an exercise in promise-making, we are moving forward with our commitments and ensuring results are benefiting northerners and all Canadians,” said Strahl.
It was a statement that didn’t resonate with the opposition.
“It’s great they’re (the federal government) talking about the North, but the problem is that a lot of what they’ve already promised they haven’t followed through with,” said Yukon Liberal MP Larry Bagnell.
The three icebreaker ships and the fleet of “strength-and-supply ships” Harper pledged to protect the North never materialized, said Bagnell, who sits on the aboriginal affairs and northern development committee.
Aboriginal land claims, technology for cleaning up oil spills, and the Mackenzie Valley and Alaska Highway pipelines have also been completely forgotten about, he said.
“Northerners won’t be fooled forever.”
The federal government hasn’t portrayed a clear vision of where they want to go with this Northern Strategy, said Western Arctic NDP MP and Northern Affairs critic, Dennis Bevington.
“At a time of huge financial corporate failures around the world it’s a bit overstated to be so focused on Arctic sovereignty,” he said.
Instead, the government should be focusing on northern governance and economic development, said Bevington.
Looking at the two boundary disputes Canada is currently facing—the Northwest Passage and in the Beaufort Sea—Bevington said there is little reason to be putting so much emphasis on building a reserve unit in the North.
“Both of these issues are with the United States. It’s not as if we’re going to use military means to settle those disputes,” he said.
What concerns Bevington is that northerners weren’t consulted in the creation of the Northern Strategy. The result is a plan that doesn’t help the average northerner, he said.
“So much of this exercise is just good politics for people down south.”
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