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The Politics of Arctic Sovereignty

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It’s time Canadians demand to know how long Stephen Harper plans to continue playing the Arctic sovereignty card without actually doing anything to ensure that sovereignty.

Stump speeches, campaign rhetoric and photo-ops serve the imperative of rallying Canadians around the flag while scoring political points but they do nothing to ensure the protection of Canada’s Northern region.

During the 2006 election campaign the Harper Conservatives promised to increase Canada’s military presence in the Arctic by deploying icebreakers and installing a remote sensing network in Northern waters.

In 2007 Stephen Harper announced that he would build eight Polar Class 5 Offshore Patrol Ships and establish deep water port facilities in the far North. Construction of those vessels, which are in fact a major downsizing from ships already on the drawing board prior to the Conservatives taking office, has yet to begin and where’s the port facility? Apparently it’s still contained in a cabinet briefing document stuffed into some filing cabinet on Parliament Hill.

During his much publicized 2007 announcement, at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, Harper said, “Canada has a choice when it comes to our sovereignty over the Arctic. We either use it or lose it and make no mistake this government intends to use it because Canada’s Arctic is central to our national identity and our future”.

Perhaps closer to the truth is the likelihood that talking about Arctic sovereignty has been central to his campaign success and he plans to use it for what it’s worth as long as possible.

We’ve all heard media reports about Arctic exercises involving the Canadian military, in fact one is underway as I write this, but a week or two of patrols, once a year (during summer months only) isn’t going scare away any nation bent on claiming part of the Canadian Arctic.

If local police in your community staged a parade, no matter how impressive, before high tailing it out of town for the rest of the year how protected would you feel knowing you’re completely on your own for the next 11+ months?

With the Arctic opening up more and more to shipping traffic, with multiple nations scrambling to stake a claim to its borders and riches, and with nations around the world far more unstable today than most of us can remember in recent years, national security is not a subject to be taken lightly. Nor is it something that should be used for political gain and then quickly tossed aside until the next election.

A perfect example of the low regard the federal government has for Arctic sovereignty is the Canadian Forces air base at Happy Valley – Goose Bay.

For years advocates have done everything in their limited power to convince Ottawa that the base needs to once again become an integral part of Canada’s military defences.

Situated in Labrador, 5-Wing Goose Bay is ideally positioned at the gateway to the Eastern Arctic. In fact Canadian Forces aircraft are using to stage this year’s Arctic exercises. Unfortunately, as with Arctic sovereignty, once those exercises are over the base will again be forgotten until it serves somebody’s political ambitions.

The Conservative government promised three elections ago to re-activate the base, which was a key component in North America’s defences during WWII. They spoke of making it an “operational requirement”, of stationing a 650 person rapid response battalion there and of using it as a base for a long-range unmanned aerial squadron.
As with other commitments to Arctic sovereignty nothing has happened during the years since those promises were made other than to restate them during each election cycle.

Just last week the Minister of Defence, Peter MacKay, and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Peter Penashue, who hails from Labrador and was a long time supporter of 5-Wing Goose Bay prior entering the Conservative caucus, cancelled a planned trip to the base. Their visit was to have provided them with a photo-op regarding the remediation of some long standing environmental issues. The visit has now been rescheduled for early September however there is no expectation of any announcements regarding the future of the base.

Stephen Harper may talk the talk but when it comes to Arctic sovereignty there’s precious little evidence he ever actually intends to walk the walk.

At the PMO political expediency, not territorial security, appear to be the driving force behind Arctic sovereignty.

No new patrol vessels have yet to materialize. The promise of a Northern deepwater port exists on paper only and 5-Wing Goose Bay, Canada’s closest airbase to the Arctic’s Eastern approaches, continues to collect dust except for rare occasion when an Arctic exercise is staged or when some unidentified aircraft unexpectedly enters Canadian airspace. When that happens CF-18s fighters are scrambled from the nearest operational base in Bagotville Quebec but, due to the vast distance between Bagotville and the coast, those jets are forced to land at the neglected Goose Bay facility in order to refuel before continuing with their Intercept mission.

Apparently it’s a defence system that works well on the political stage but I’m not so sure it would do much for Canada’s security should anything faster than a box kite made an approach.

When it comes to Arctic sovereignty the Harper government may not have done anything to protect our Northern border but at least we can all stop wondering if some foreign nation will try to encroach on our territory there. It’s all but guaranteed. In fact with the current level of security available we’ll be lucky if a rogue Boy Scout troop brandishing Swiss army knives doesn’t seize control of the area.

Read more of the author’s blog at Web Talk – Newfoundland and Labrador

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