By Stephen Van Dine, December 1, 2022
Today, the Canadian North is at the forefront of intense global geopolitics involving Russia, China and the United States. These “titans” are each jockeying for position to dominate the transportation routes and natural resources in the region, which will have tremendous influence in the 21st century. The Arctic also happens to be one-third of the Canadian coastline, yet Canada’s ability to influence the push and pull at the top of the world is complicated by design.
From Nain, Labrador to Old Crow, Yukon, Canada’s northern landscape and coastline is blanketed by dozens of governance and decision-making bodies, large and small, including land claim, self-government, municipal, provincial, territorial and federal government entities. In the Northwest Territories, for example, the Mackenzie Gas Pipeline Project required a “regulatory roadmap” to be built to enable the proponents and regulatory authorities to have a complete understanding of permits and licences required for the linear project that traversed several land claim boundaries and a territorial and provincial border.
Canada’s pursuit of modern governance solutions and agreements with Indigenous communities began in earnest with the signing of the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) in 1974 and continues today with ongoing negotiations in northern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories. The driver in the 1970s was the construction of the James Bay Hydro project and growing Indigenous case law pointing to Indigenous title. Industry needed government to create a means to achieving legal certainty in a specific geographical region of Quebec. The JBNQA was the result and became the model going forward.
Canada also used this governance approach in the North internationally. The Ottawa Declaration established the Arctic Council in 1996 and was championed by Canada’s then Foreign Minister, Lloyd Axworthy and Canada’s first Arctic Ambassador, Mary Simon, now Canada’s Governor General.
In the early dawn of the post-Cold War period, the Arctic Council was a new and forward-looking international body promoting the idea of an Arctic region of collaboration, cooperation, and science between both national governments and their Indigenous peoples.
Almost 30 years in, the Arctic Council has grown to become the preeminent intergovernmental forum in the Arctic region including Russia, the United States, the Nordic nations, and Canada. With a two-year rotational chair formula, each Arctic Council member gets an opportunity to set a research agenda based on their priorities.
However, Canada’s influence at that table has begun to wane, especially in comparison to financial commitments made by other nations including Norway and Denmark as well as the United States and Russia. Whether driven by cost cutting or changing priorities, Canada’s participation has declined since the Mary Simon days. Today, there is no Arctic Ambassador. Instead, there is a small secretariat within the labyrinth that is Global Affairs Canada. And the secretariat itself is situated within a portfolio mixing Nordic and eastern European foreign policy and trade issues.
The secretariat also manages relationships with domestic partners through the Arctic Council Advisory Committee. These partners include other federal departments such as Department of National Defence, Fisheries and Oceans, the Coast Guard and Crown-Indigenous Relations, as well as the territories, some provinces, and the three Indigenous organizations in Canada that are also Permanent Participants at the Arctic Council.
On paper, it would seem Canada has the organizational infrastructure in place connected to the key domestic players to allow for coherent, integrated and robust policy and program contributions to advance the country’s interests. And yet, a closer look reveals that the resources are spread far too thin across many jurisdictions. Even a casual survey of most Arctic publications, such as Arctic Today, devote more coverage to Greenland and Alaska as well as the US government’s actions in the Arctic than it does to either the Canadian Arctic or Canadian government Arctic policy. Even the United Kingdom is moving back into the space with more intent and purpose through science as well as marine and defence cooperation initiatives. And Canada’s Auditor General has recently raised concern over Canada’s capability to defend itself in the Arctic.
It would appear that Canada’s focus on self-determination for northerners and Indigenous peoples in the Canadian North has resulted in a serious decline in resources devoted to advancing and protecting Canada’s foreign interests in the region. Rhetorically speaking, why should the federal government invest in Arctic capacity if “those responsibilities” will be transferred to another level of government?
Additionally, Canada doesn’t behave like an Arctic Nation. With 80 percent of its population living within 100 kilometres of the US border, and the Arctic having relatively few representatives (3-4 Senators, depending who you count, and a handful of Members of Parliament) in the halls of power, the federal government sees the North and the Arctic as a minor file.
Today, however, Canada’s Arctic interests are decentralized among dozens of public and Indigenous governments of all shapes and sizes from Newfoundland and Labrador to Yukon. In addition, Arctic capabilities are marbled throughout the federal government in equally diverse structures from Agriculture Canada to Natural Resources Canada.
There is a clear and present danger for Canada’s national security and foreign policy interests in the Arctic. A recent visit by NATO’s Secretary General to Canada reveals allies are also worried about Canada’s capacity in the region.
If asked, federal officials will list a number of activities now underway to shore up Canada’s interests in the Arctic. These activities include the establishment of the leader’s council under Canada’s Arctic and Northern Policy Framework, $4.9 billion in spending commitments to modernize Distant Early Warning sites under NORAD, the commissioning of Arctic Offshore Patrol Vessels, and funding to close the socio-economic gaps for Indigenous communities in areas such as housing, mental wellness and a limited number of infrastructure projects.
Minister Dan Vandal has cultivated trust and close working relationships with Northern government leaders – and hosts the ANPF leader forum. Moreover, he has attracted the interest of Minister Joly and Anand to the file. And, more recently, Minister Wilkinson has announced the creation of a northern table to discuss ways in which to expedite the exploration and development of critical minerals. While these initiatives are all welcome, in sum, they do not add up to a substantive and effective role or position for Canada in the Arctic region. So what can Canada do to be more effectual in defending its Arctic interests abroad?
Restoring and growing Canada’s influence on the world stage in Arctic matters requires a combination of machinery of government changes, governance adjustments, policy shifts and investment.
Beginning with machinery of government, a Cabinet committee on the Arctic is overdue. Such a committee would bring immediate coherence and order with the commiserate due diligence and challenge that comes with the full weight of the best of Canada’s decision-making abilities. With a growing number of Ministers participating in the Northern space, the challenge to internally coordinate and be strategic is made more complicated.
Such a committee would have oversight and policy integration responsibilities for economic, social, environment, reconciliation and defence under its domain. It would also make the Arctic a “whole of government” responsibility with close ties to the Privy Council Office, Finance and Treasury Board. A Cabinet committee does not strike fear in the hearts of our adversaries, but it is a necessary prerequisite to getting organized and integrated.
Second, Canada’s Arctic and Northern Policy Framework needs governance teeth. With all key governments including Indigenous, provincial and territorial governments present, the current leadership model needs to become a joint decision-making forum for action. At present, the current model is more information-sharing than decision-making. Making the shift to decision-making would involve both political, financial and administrative commitments to develop joint project proposals with a cost-sharing formula. Yes, cost-sharing. When costs are shared, decisions become more challenging to reach on one hand, but more impactful on the other. Some may object to more structure and rigour as being too time consuming and an obstacle to visible results. However, the risk of not doing so means Canada’s approach in the Arctic is more fragmented and less coherent.
Finally, a new approach to policy development must move past the narrow interests of representational pie sharing to true intergovernmental, and co-managed initiatives and programs that marry bottom up projects and initiatives with top-down priorities. This means the various technical officials from the numerous governments are mandated to design and build with partners leaving decision-makers the ability to approve at the leaders’ table.
Should Canada be unable to overcome its current Arctic policy shortcomings, the consequences could relegate Canada to become a guest in its own house for decades to come. Correcting Canada’s vulnerabilities requires a deep understanding of how we got here, significant leadership and a cogent set of actions sequenced, coordinated and fully funded.
Stephen Van Dine is President and CEO of Arctic Unlimited and former Assistant Deputy Minister of Northern Affairs, Alternate Senior Arctic Official and now retired Assistant Deputy Minister.