On the Eve of an Election Call, Canada Revisits its Arctic Policies

Whitehorse, Yukon Territory [Photo via Wikipedia]
Canada will be returning to the polls on 21 October and just before the election date was confirmed, the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau quietly published a long-awaited, and according to some commentators, long-delayed, updated set of policies for the Canadian North.

The main element of the policy documentation, the Arctic and Northern Policy Framework, was meant to update to the regional policies put forward by Mr Trudeau’s predecessor, Stephen Harper and included the Northern Strategy issued in 2009 and the Statement on Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy published a year later. In June 2019 the Canadian Senate also published a standalone report, Northern Lights: A Wake-up Call for the Future of Canada [pdf], which highlighted the need to better protect the country’s Arctic sovereignty, empower the peoples in the Canadian Arctic, and concentrate on addressing critical infrastructure needs.

The big question, however, is how the updated policy framework will address the myriad domestic policy concerns in the Canadian Arctic, as well as the growing number of regional and international challenges facing the region, such as the possibility of the high north becoming an arena for strategic competition. The 2019 Framework included a forward by Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, who noted the documents were developed with extensive contributions from northern actors, including provincial and territorial governments in addition to Indigenous peoples.

The objectives of the new plan are expected to be carried out between now and 2030, with a specific set of goals and principles outlined as priorities for the Canadian Arctic. The ten principles incorporated the need to be inclusive in various policy decisions affecting the Arctic, and the requirement that Indigenous Persons and northern communities should specifically be engaged.

The goals in question are to ensure the health and wellbeing of Arctic Indigenous peoples, to develop infrastructure with the objective of closing income gaps with the rest of Canada, improve the strength of Arctic communities, to improve the understanding of the Canadian North, protect Arctic ecosystems, support the ‘rules-based international order’ of the Arctic in the face of various challenges, defend the Arctic and its peoples, and support the ongoing process of reconciliation between Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal Peoples. In order to address these goals, there were specific calls for combatting regional poverty and health risks, developing sectors such as fishing and tourism for economic growth, and improving northern education.

For example, Yukon College in Whitehorse is making preparations to become the platform for Canada’s first Arctic university in 2020, with Ottawa pledging C$26 million (US$19 million) in March of this year to build a new science building touted as the ‘cornerstone’ of the nascent Yukon University. The environment also factored extensively in the Framework’s goals, with policies included to promote sustainable development and the reduction of greenhouse gases. Another major Canadian research facility, the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS), had its official opening last month.

Included in the report’s promises to improve infrastructure in Arctic Canada was the stated intent to provide ‘fast, reliable, and affordable broadband connectivity for all,’ including in the country’s northern regions. The question of internet access in the Canadian North has been a delicate one, especially considering that quality standards for connectivity are considered as having been neglected in the three Canadian Arctic territories (Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Yukon). None of these territories have to benefit from access to the types of unlimited data services found in the south, according to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CTRC).

The large territory and small populations of the Arctic territories have offered a special challenge for the construction of modern internet networks, resulting in services far more expensive as compared those of southern cities. As well, telecommunication networks in the Canadian North have been widely considered fragile and prone to accidental shutdowns, with Yukon being especially plagued by internet failures of late.

[Map via Wiki-Voyage]
One potential external partner for the improvement of the Canadian Arctic’s internet capabilities, however, has considered controversial, at best. In July of this year, the Canadian division of China-based firm Huawei announced it was seeking to partner with Ice Wireless in Inuvik and Iristel, a voiceover internet protocol (VOIP) provider in Markham, Ontario, to provide high-speed internet access to seventy communities across the Canadian Arctic and Northern Québec. The announcement has since drawn criticism given the current difficult state of Sino-Canadian relations since late last year, primarily due to the diplomatic and economic fallout from the arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, in Vancouver at the behest of the United States, which is seeking to try her for attempting to circumvent US sanctions on Iran.

Critics have also expressed reservations about the security implications of the Huawei deal, as well as the potential of a monopoly being created. The Canadian government has also been wary of making a decision on whether to potentially include Huawei in Canada’s overall fifth-generation (5G) communications infrastructure, at least until after the upcoming federal election.

From a more regional-level vantage point, the Framework took note of the need for Canada to address changes in the Arctic which are ‘the product of both climate change and changing geopolitical trends,’ and called for better Canadian representation at various Arctic organisations, including representation by Arctic populations themselves. Related to this was a call to better define Canada’s far northern maritime areas and boundaries, possibly a nod to the Northwest Passage (NWP), which Ottawa maintains is internal Canadian waters, (a point specified in the report).

Since the beginning of this year, the United States has been pressing an alternative view of the NWP as international waters, and there is also a dispute between the two countries over a wedge-shaped area of the Beaufort Sea near the border between Alaska and Yukon. Canada also has a land dispute with Denmark / Greenland over the sovereignty of Hans Island which lies between Greenland and Nunavut’s Baffin Island, and the issue of the boundary between Canada and Greenland in the Lincoln Sea also remains unresolved.

The report also noted that there was a need for better protection by various military and security agencies of the Canadian North as well as to better promote ‘situational awareness’ as well as ‘maritime domain awareness’. Unlike recent Arctic defence documents released by the United States, which have been terse in their assertions that both China and Russia represented direct challenges to regional security, the Canadian report did not focus on specific country-based threats in the Arctic. There was mention in the ‘International Chapter’ of the new Arctic policy that Ottawa must strengthen relations with ‘with Arctic and key non-Arctic states and actors,’ with a special focus on the North American Arctic, (Alaska and Greenland).

Canadian territorial flags outside of Global Affairs Canada, Ottawa [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
The ‘Safety, Security, and Defence Chapter’ also pointed to the need for various levels of cooperation to ensure the safety of the region, commenting that even though ‘Canada sees no immediate threat in the Arctic and the north,’ challenges related to climate change, increased maritime traffic, enhanced search and rescue requirements, and the changing legal landscape of the region did require attention. There was also the note that there were ‘both Arctic and non-Arctic states expressing a variety of economic and military interests in the region’, although again there were no specific governments which were singled out. Finally, the budgeting for many of these proposed improvements was estimated at C$700 billion (US$527 billion), including for education, investments, various types of research, and environmental monitoring.

The documents have so far garnered mixed reviews from commentators, with one analysis noting a lack of specificities, given that the report had been in preparation since late 2016. Other critiques were sceptical of the timing of the report’s release so close to a federal election, and also suggested that many of the recommendations given were not new and that further details were required, regarding how some of these goals would be successfully achieved. There was also the bigger question about how Canada, like other Arctic nations, would successfully balance development and environmental protection. Two territorial leaders, Northwest Territories Premier Bob McLeod and Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq both described the report as representing a preliminary platform upon which to build. In the meantime, as the curtain rises on what is already proving to be a rough-and-tumble election season, it remains to be seen the degree to which Arctic affairs will play a role in the campaigns.