Harper Defending Arctic Sovereignty? | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Harper Defending Arctic Sovereignty?

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on September 8, 2008. Partner content is not updated.

Harper Defending Arctic Sovereignty?

Time was when a prime minister on the cusp of an election campaign would spend those last few days before the writ glad-handing through the more populous regions - "vote-rich Ontario," say, or "battleground Quebec." Stephen HARPER? Not so much. With an election call reportedly imminent, the Prime Minister instead retired with several members of his cabinet to the Far North, a three-day tour with stops in INUVIK, TUKTOYAKTUK, and DAWSON. Population, combined: 5,681. The trip was billed as an election-planning session, but also as a demonstration of the government's commitment to defending "Canada's ARCTIC SOVEREIGNTY." Perhaps the two are not so incongruous as they seem.

In fact, Canada's Arctic sovereignty is getting along just fine, thank you. For all the emphasis the Conservatives have placed on it - "use it or lose it," in Harper's famous formulation - and for all the reams of hyperventilating, the-Russians-are-coming reportage it has received in the media, no one is actually threatening to invade Canada's frozen North. Neither is there much dispute over Canada's territorial waters - the ribbon of sea along our coast, 200 nautical miles wide, that international law acknowledges as ours. Even the much bolder claim we have lately advanced to the waters beyond the 200-mile limit, reaching as far as the NORTH POLE, is for the most part uncontested.

It's true that other nations - the United States, Russia, Norway, Denmark - have their own claims to the Arctic waters, or more importantly to the fabulous deposits of oil and gas beneath. But the overlaps, at least where Canada is concerned, are surprisingly narrow: a sliver of the BEAUFORT SEA, where we are in conflict with the Americans, and another near the North Pole, which the Russians claim as theirs. Oh, and the fabled NORTHWEST PASSAGE, which GLOBAL WARMING may soon make navigable? The one Canadians are taught from childhood belongs to us? Seems we're about the only ones who think so.

It can't hurt our case, and may help, if we bolster our physical presence in the North. Certainly we should hope that the Arctic spoils are divided by something resembling a legal process, rather than by military force or international free-for-all. And there are good reasons - environmental, security - why it would be in everybody's interest for Canada to continue to police the passage. But on its merits, the question of Arctic sovereignty would not seem to warrant anything like the attention it has received from this government.

It does, however, serve an important political objective - namely, as part of the CONSERVATIVES' efforts to rebrand themselves as the Canada Party, or perhaps to redefine Canada itself: to devise an alternative language and symbology of patriotism to the one so successfully exploited over the years by the LIBERALS. The North is an important part of that strategy - as Harper has put it, "Canada's Arctic is central to our national identity as a northern nation" - but it is only a part.

Politics in Canada has always been a battle for ownership of the national idea. Other countries have elections about where the country should be going; ours are about what the country is. When Sir John A. MACDONALD abandoned his pursuit of reciprocity in 1876, he did not call the high-tariff platform he improvised in its place the protectionist policy or the Conservative policy: he called it the National Policy.

In the first decades after CONFEDERATION, the Conservatives were indisputably the Canada Party, the party of Empire and Union, where the Liberals were the party of continentalism and provincial rights. But in time, with the decline of Empire and the rise of the welfare state, the Liberals shoved them aside. The state, in Liberal ideology, was not merely a provider of public services: it was the very essence of Canada - not only the defender of our distinctiveness from the American colossus, but the primary evidence of it. It followed that the Liberals, as the party of the state, were the party of Canada.

Particularly after 1968, it became almost impossible to separate the two. Liberal values became "Canadian values." Liberal policies - medicare, public ownership, a sort of quasi-neutral status abroad - became Canadian policies. The very symbols of nationhood were remade in the Liberals' image, most famously in the design of the new flag. As a political strategy, it was devastating: a vote for any party but the Liberals was a vote against Canada itself. And the longer they were in power, the more natural the equation seemed.

The result was an oddity: left-wing patriotism. In other countries, patriotism and its symbols - Crown, flag, army - are largely the preserve of the right. The alienated young lefty in Britain or France or the United States is obliged to reject, not merely the parties of the right, but also the patriotic values they espouse. He must stand a little apart from his own country. Whereas in Canada, that same disaffected youth would bask in Establishment approval. He might even be publicly funded.

In consequence, the most fervent Canadian patriots have tended to be found on the left. It was on the right where you found the morose and the embittered. Told that to reject the Liberals was to reject Canada, many, especially in the West, rejected both (though not, happily, a majority). Harper himself once notoriously proposed erecting a constitutional "firewall" around Alberta, to defend against encroachments from the rest of Canada. Needless to say, this deepened the Conservative dilemma.

If the Conservatives were to succeed, as Harper intends, not simply in winning government, but in establishing themselves as permanent contenders for power, it would not be enough just to offer an alternative set of policies. If they wanted to realign Canadian politics, they had to change not only the words but the melody: they had to invent a distinctly Conservative patriotism. Or at least, one that was not so obviously Liberal.

The realization was slow to dawn. The party platform in 2004 (slogan: Demand Better), cobbled together in a frantic few weeks between the party's formation and the election call, was a fairly straightforward recitation of Conservative policies, if in watered-down form. By 2006, however, the language had changed. The slogan this time: Stand Up for Canada.

But Stand Up against what? Not the United States: occasional fits of expediency to the contrary, the Conservatives still see themselves as committed free traders, proud allies. And not the provinces: the Conservatives remain the party of provincial rights. The Arctic, however, was just vague enough to fit the bill. Rather than keep a baleful watch on our neighbours to the south, as in Liberal patriotism, the Conservatives would have us shift our gaze northward - where "defending Canadian sovereignty" is rather less messy. To be sure, it still involves the odd conflict with the Americans - remember Harper's brush-back of the American ambassador over the Northwest Passage, shortly after taking office - but nothing like the battles of old.

The outline of an alternative Canadian patriotism can also be seen in Harper's embrace of the Afghanistan mission. The Liberals had always been reluctant allies, even as they committed troops to Kandahar: it was mostly a dodge to stay out of Iraq. Harper jumped in with both feet. The language he used on his first visit is telling: "cutting and running," he told the troops, "is not the Canadian way." Nor was "carping from the sidelines," but "taking a stand ... A country that really leads, not a country that just follows ... stepping up to the plate, doing good when good is required."

So much for our vision of ourselves as a kind of Sweden, always ready to mediate between sides, never to choose one. It wasn't quite "ask not what your country can do for you," but it was as close as any Canadian leader had come in a long while. The pride in country it invoked - urgent, demanding, self-sacrificing - was of an altogether different kind than we were used to.

It was new, but it was also old: retrieving our warrior self-image, earned through two world wars, after so many years in peacekeeping storage. Much of Liberal patriotism seemed to suggest that history began in 1968. The Tories consistently appeal to an older history, half-buried memories. Take their approach to Quebec. Leave aside the policies, which are mostly the usual pandering. It's the language that's interesting. Canada was "born in French." Quebec is the "heart of Canada," the founding of Quebec City the founding of Canada.

This isn't an attempt to superimpose Canadian nationalism on Quebec. Rather, it is almost the reverse, pouring Quebec nationalism into a Canadian mold, integrating Quebec's story into a larger Canadian narrative. Tories, likewise, are disinclined to present their "autonomist" constitutional position as something new: rather, they claim, it is a return to a more authentic past, to the true vision of the Fathers. It's a stretch - Sir John A. would be astonished to learn he was a provincial rights advocate - but it is yet another attempt to position the Tories as the Canada Party.

This extends even to the smallest detail. Where the Prime Minister's website under the Liberals was awash in red, under the Tories it is a sea of blue. The slogan on the main government site - The True North Strong and Free - might seem innocuous: it is, after all, from the anthem. But it would not have occurred to the Liberals to use it. Strong and free? What about tolerant and diverse?

North versus south, allies versus honest brokers, blue versus red, right versus left: it is not just a new coalition the Conservatives are trying to create. It is a new patriotism.

Maclean's September 8, 2008

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