Analysis: A new Canadian government… so what?

Justin Trudeau, Prime minister of Canada. (Photo: Liberal Party of Canada)
After six months under Trudeau, is Canada’s Arctic policy changing, asks High North News-correspondent Andreas Østhagen and his colleague Greg Sharp (The Arctic Institute) in this analysis.

After six months under Trudeau, is Canada’s Arctic policy changing?

Replacing almost a decade of Conservative rule under Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government swept a majority of the seats in Canada’s parliament in an upset victory late last year. Six months into the fledgling government’s term, has the country’s Arctic policy changed at all?

Despite barely figuring during the election campaign, and with few details being released to date, it seems that the path chosen by the Trudeau government diverges significantly (at least rhetorically) from his predecessor in at least two ways: a return to cooperative multilateralism and an emphasis on social issues.

The Conservative legacy

Governing for almost a decade, the Conservatives were in power at a time when the Arctic rose to prominence internationally on the coattails of a resurgent Russia and the excitement surrounding the vast resource and shipping potential of the region. The strong stance taken by the Harper government polarized public opinion and left a controversial legacy in the Arctic.

Eschewing Canada’s historic emphasis on multilateralism and espousing a foreign policy that often depicted the world in black and white, the Conservative’s stance on the Arctic was characterised by tough rhetoric on Canada’s sovereignty and Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Promising investment in naval capabilities for Arctic patrols, Harper coined the now infamous “use it or lose it” phrase in 2007. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Harper used strong statements and diplomatic snubs to take a tough stance on Russian actions.  Although this rhetoric was designed largely for domestic consumption and fed into a larger brand promoted by Harper’s Conservative Party, the hawkish tone seemed an uncomfortable fit for a region often hailed for its cooperative environment.  

Following up on this tough rhetoric, Harper also made promises of investments in Canada’s northern infrastructure and military capacity. Many of these promises never materialized or were downgraded. Such was the fate of the promised naval facility in Nanisivik, the (much beloved of journalists) research into stealth snowmobiles, and the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS). The latter were reduced in number and had their technical specs scaled back for budgetary reasons, leading some to label them “slush-breakers” or “lightweight patrol divas.”

This began to change in 2009 when the Harper government’s rhetoric took on slightly less of a security fixation and instead highlighted the importance of polar cooperation. The focus also shifted towards so-called responsible development and the “use it or lose it” phrase was dropped. This economic development was geared towards Canada’s northern territories, but was also reflected internationally in Canada’s 2013-15 Arctic Council chairmanship theme: “development for the people of the North.” While some saw this as a step in the right direction, others criticized the government for ignoring Indigenous peoples, social issues, and the environment.

For all its critique; however, the Conservatives under Harper gave pride of place to the Arctic and catapulted the region into the national conversation in a way that has not been seen in Canada since Diefenbaker’s Roads to Resources program in the 1950s and 60s. The emphasis on Canadian sovereignty and the associated stunts—such as granting Santa Claus a Canadian passport and Harper’s much publicised trips to the north—galvanized domestic attention.

At the end of almost a decade in office, the Conservative legacy is one of a very specific vision of Canada. Internationally the nationalistic rhetoric and posturing stood at odds with the tone of cooperation that prevailed in the region. Domestically it played an important role in bringing the north to the forefront of the national conversation, but did so in a way that alienated many that disagreed with the emphasis on economic and military concerns.

Return to civility?

For better or for worse Canada’s North, and the Arctic more generally, did not figure prominently in the 2015 electoral campaign. Of note, however, is that all three seats in Canada’s northern territories were taken by the Liberals—whether this is an indictment of the Conservative’s northern approach, a wholesale rejection of their policies, or merely a quirk of the electoral system is hard to tell. Going forward, the Trudeau government appears eager to differentiate itself from Harper’s controversial legacy.

One of the key ways the Liberals are attempting to do this is by adopting a more cooperative tone in the Arctic and beyond. This shift marks a return to Canada’s historic emphasis on multilateralism and careful diplomacy. Indicative of as much, the relationship with Russia has stabilised after Trudeau’s government took over in November of 2015. Whereas Harper implemented a no dialogue-policy after events in Ukraine, the new government in Ottawa seems more pragmatic, willing to cooperate with Russia when necessary. As the new Minister of Global Affairs, Stéphane Dion put it in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen last fall: “we need to engage much more than before, even with the regimes that we have difficulty with.

Despite this change in tone, Canada still wants to be seen as acting firm over Ukraine. On March 18, Canada imposed additional sanctions, adding entities and individuals to the sanctions list. As highlighted in the press release by the Canadian government: “By engaging with Russia on the one hand and demonstrating our firm resolve on sanctions on the other, we strengthen our collective ability to hold them to account.” Given the lack of significant trade between Russia and Canada, the ramifications of these increased sanctions to the Russo-Canadian relationship is likely to be relatively little.

Relationships with Canada’s traditional allies have also improved in the last six months. For example, at a join summit earlier this year, President Obama and the newly minted Prime Minister released a statement pledging to develop low-impact shipping corridors, work towards a ban on all commercial fishing in the Arctic until research can determine sustainable levels, and protect 17 per cent of land areas as well as 10 per cent of marine areas by 2020. This stands in stark contrast to the often frosty relationship between Harper and Obama that was complicated over disagreements on the Keystone XL pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.

All is not well at home

While rhetoric is changing abroad, the challenges Prime Minister Trudeau faces at home in Canada’s north are substantial. Communities face limited resources, little to no access to public services, and high levels of unemployment. Food prices are exorbitant, transport is limited and equally expensive, and infrastructure is severely lacking. This is particularly true of the many small, remote communities scattered throughout the territories. And while the situation is notably better in the territorial capitals, they still face administrative and political capacity gaps due to their small populations and the lack of higher education programs catering to the specific needs of northern Canada.

In attempting to tackle these challenges, the Trudeau government appears to be re-focusing Canada’s Arctic policy towards improving conditions in its northern communities. During the 2015 campaign, the Liberals specifically focused on climate change, the Nutrition North food subsidy program, and affordable housing in the northern territories—three key areas that resonated with northerners. That the new Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Carolyn Bennett, wasted no time in going up north to consult with stakeholders on the Nutrition North program was well received.

The Trudeau government has also highlighted the importance of building a better relationship with Indigenous peoples. The Minister for Indigenous Affairs has vocally argued for Canada’s responsibilities concerning its Indigenous population (First Nations, Métis, and Inuit) and Trudeau has repeatedly committed to a nation-to-nation relationship. A major first step was the removal of Canada’s objector status to the UN Declaration on the Rights of of Indigenous Peoples in May of this year.

And yet, in spite of these early rhetorical changes, question remains whether these efforts will dramatically change the conditions for those living in Canada’s North. Albeit a priority under the last years of the Harper rule, commentators have argued that words were not followed by actions on this topic. It thus remains to be seen whether or not the new government will succumb to making lofty promises, only to be held back by budgetary constraints, as was the case with the Harper administration.

A new path forward?

Taken altogether, there are signs of a shift in Canada’s Arctic policy. Transcending the debate concerning Russia and a “new cold war” in the Arctic, the new government seems to be taking a more pragmatic and less controversial approach to northern issues by emphasising cooperation when necessary. Domestically, the shift towards social issues and building a better relationship with Indigenous peoples are key points of differentiation. That being said, development in the north faces many challenges including high costs and short political attention spans, and it still remains to be seen how these policies will evolve or what impact they will have. A first step would be to figure out how self-governance of the local communities in the north can be further improved.

At the same time, Ottawa has to deal with the potential incidents that can follow in the wake of the traverse of cruise ships like the Crystal Serenity through remote Arctic waters. The Arctic represents a great opportunity for Trudeau to not only implement some of the policy priorities he laid out during his campaign, but also to differentiate himself from Harper. More important than political maneuvering and posturing, however, is addressing the very real problems facing Canada’s Arctic.   

This analysis is written by HNN-correspondent Andreas Østhagen, who is also a Senior Fellow at The Arctic Institute (TAI), and Grep Sharp (Research Associate, TAI).