Review: A Phony War

Canadian explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson said, “The Arctic is the centre of the world and we think it is the edge.” Stefansson made the North his life; he once ate only meat for an entire year to prove the Inuit diet was nutritionally sound.  Stefansson lived to 87.

Canada and the Changing Arctic notes the North remains marginalized as a land of “symbolism and mythology.” Only symbols vary: the midnight sun; an inukshuk lawn ornament; the plucky Arctic Rangers, “a militia unit comprised of local volunteers who are given a minimum of training, a red sweatshirt, a rifle and some ammunition.”

Looming above all is the symbol of an Arctic “cold rush,” the dreamlike prospect of untapped petroleum resources at the top of the world, complete with sloganeering. “Use it or lose it,” the Prime Minister said in 2007. The authors, three professors from the Universities of Toronto, Waterloo and Calgary, lament such “alarmist rhetoric” in the absence of hard facts: no one is sure how much oil there is. And no one knows how much it will cost to exploit it.

And like it or not, Russia and the United States are also Arctic nations: “Rather than setting this up as a ‘polar race’ destined to end in a resource feeding frenzy that will ignore international laws and norms, the federal government should make more effort to clarify Canada’s actual claims.”

So, we lapse into a kind of phony war where Canada declares itself threatened and then pretends to care.

The Prime Minister uttered his “use it or lose it” phrase in a photo-op at CFB Esquimalt, flanked by sailors in Navy whites. Stephen Harper was announcing plans for a $3.1 billion Arctic patrol fleet. Yet the North still has few commercial harbours.  And years later not a single new Arctic patrol vessel has been built. No irony was intended.

“Canadians have become convinced that our sovereignty is on ‘thinning ice,’” reports Canada and the Changing Arctic. “This provides senior decision makers, based in southern Canada and possessing a distinctly southern world view, with a convenient pretext to devise ‘stand up for Canada’ strategies that play to a southern audience. Diplomacy and dialogue are marginalized, and a positive short-term outcome – defined as strong political optics with the aura of decisive action – becomes more important than process.”

The professors have ideas. Perhaps Canada might create a Secretary of State for the Arctic; maybe we could pursue co-operative stewardship with other Arctic nations; say, what if Canada embraced the Arctic not as a symbol but a defining reality?

“The time has come for southern Canadians to internalize their responsibilities for the North, not because it is in danger of being stolen away but because it is integral to who we are as a country. A Northern Vision has the potential to unite us all.”

Vilhjalmur Stefansson could not have said it better.

By Holly Doan

Canada and the Changing Arctic by Franklyn Griffiths, Rob Huebert and P. Whitney Lackenbauer; Wilfrid Laurier University Press; 340 pages; ISBN: 978-1-55458-338-6; $34.95

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