"The Idea of North"

Two boys sleep outside a grocery store in Iqaluit (Picture from The Globe and Mail).
“If press clippings and and newscast coverage could only count toward legitimizing Canada’s historic stake over the melting Arctic…Harper might well be onto something.”
Don Martin, National Post, August 17th, 2009

On December 28, 1967, CBC Radio broadcast Glenn Gould’s radio documentary, The Idea of North. The documentary took 5 people who had spent large amounts of time in the north, and weaved their voices contrapuntally into a vocal fugue of sorts (but of course no Aboriginal people were interviewed).

I only bring Gould’s work up because I think of it every time I hear news about the Arctic. This week has been no different. Our beloved PM Stephen Harper is up in the north, paying his annual respects to a piece of Canada that has long been forgotten.

As someone who has spent much of the past year reading about Arctic government policy, including that of past prime ministers, I feel like I have a decent amount of knowledge to draw upon in order to comment on this week’s activities. However, I am no expert.

The Globe and Mail has put together a picture diary of Harper’s trip to Iqaluit. Maclean’s Aaron Wherry says Harper is “on Arctic parade.” The choice of phrase is both telling and accurate. For each of the past three years, Harper has travelled up to the Arctic, making bold pronouncements of Canadian sovereignty over the vast Arctic and promising to put in place the infrastructure needed to make sovereignty a reality rather than a nice thought.

I certainly applaud Harper’s yearly visits and what seems to be actual care and concern for the North; he’s certainly shone more of a spotlight on the area than most prime ministers. Arctic issues certainly don’t help get votes at the ballot box. However, most of the sudden interest in the North has more to do with the rapid melting of Arctic sea ice than with the myriad of social problems plaguing the region’s people.

A couple of weeks ago, the Harper government released it’s Northern Strategy document. Entitled, Canada’s Northern Strategy: Our North, Our Heritage, Our Future, the 48-page booklet features a lot of pretty pictures and a lot of maps – maps of the northern region complete with little circled numbers that mark the locations of important towns and cities that underline most Canadians’ complete ignorance of the North. The booklet is printed in landscape orientation and only features writing on the bottom 2/3 of the page (need space for those pretty pictures and quotes!), and those 2/3 are broken up into further thirds as each page features writing in English, French and Inuktitut. So if my math is correct, the booklet is really only 10 and 2/3 pages long.

Pretty much every government in the past 50 years has produced a similar booklet. But none has gone to the lengths Harper has to promote it and sell it.

To that extent, he has succeeded. I’d suspect that most people think of Harper as a protector of the North. That is credit to Harper’s media team, because they’ve been spinning the same policy announcements and funding promises for three years.

Harper’s big Arctic promises all stem from the Conservative Party’s election platform back in during the 2005-2006 election campaign. Two days before Christmas in December 2005, Harper pledged that his government would earmark $3.5 billion to build three new icebreakers, an army training centre, and a deep-water port. The money would also be used to fund new air patrols and unmanned drones to provide surveillance, as well as increase the number of Canadian Rangers operating in the Arctic. The plans also included the creation of a new Arctic National Sensor System which would place “listening posts” at various points under the Arctic waters that would track ships and submarines. Furthermore, Harper said he “would demand…that any foreign vessels travelling in Canadian territorial waters seek and get the consent of the federal government.”

So what happened to those plans? Every year new details have emerged. The deep-water port will be built in Nanisivik. There will be only one, not three, new icebreakers. It will be named after John Diefenbaker, the first Canadian prime minister to have a vision of the north – “Roads to Resources” was his idea. But other than those few details, apparently “very little” has happened – surprise, surprise.

Then there are the massive social problems throughout the North. While Harper has put a lot of time and effort into trying to ‘solve’ the sovereignty problem, the same cannot be said of his effort in trying to help the people of the North with the problems of day-to-day life. For all its talk about wanting to create a North that is self-reliant (and that phrase is everywhere in the Northern Strategy document), the Harper government doesn’t address the issues of substance abuse, extreme poverty and housing.

In academic circles, there is an increasing belief that Canadian sovereignty in the North is dependent on a vibrant and healthy Northern population. Former Nunvaut Premier Paul Okalik wrote that “Northerners are the embodiment of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty. We are its human dimension…The time has come to exercise sovereignty by investing in its human dimension.”

I couldn’t agree more. Our southern idea of sovereignty is much different than the idea of sovereignty that exists in the North. To the Inuit, their mere presence in the North is all that matters; indeed, it is all that should matter. But international law doesn’t work that way. And, neither does the Harper government, it would seem.

In Tuesday’s Globe and Mail, Marie Wadden warned that “there’s a new colonial era unfolding in Canada’s North.” It was a brilliant choice of words, as the word ‘colonial’ conjures up so many negative images; yet I’m no so sure that the choice of words is an accurate one.

But – as long as the Harper government continues to focus on securing sovereignty over land and building military infrastructure rather than focusing on and building sovereignty through the futures of thousands of Northern people, maybe she’s got a point.

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