Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Land of the Midnight Sun

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Bad Press, By other means. . . (Thursday December 22, 2005 at 6:41 pm)

Much ado about 60+ degrees of north latitude, that oft-neglected part of Canada.

Sometimes, it just seems unfair. The arctic showed so very much promise once the Northwest Passage was finally found. But then, it is frozen rather more of the year than the Panama Canal.

But Canadians surely respect the region that gives their nation its special something. Oslo may be farther north, Russia may have more Arctic territory, but Canada has. . .a territory largely administered by and for populations native to the region (and the line “True North strong and free” in the national anthem). That and a hotel located within dogsledding distance of a local tourists’ graveyard.

Small wonder, then, that the party leaders have been spending so very much time on the three seats representing this northern region.

Mr. Layton’s recent visit even attempted to capture some of the magic of Ed Broadbent’s dogsled ride with his wife, back in 1980, which helped the NDP in garnering one of two seats. Though there was a photo-op, the equipment must have malfunctioned, as the National Post ran the 1980 photo on page A6. Either CanWest (still primping to be a national network) didn’t send anyone to cover the event, or the Post decided that not enough readers would care. Probably the latter. Besides which, the 1980 election was more interesting. Anyone for Social Credit?

Mr. Harper, meanwhile, has proposed the acquisition of three heavy-duty icebreakers and the increase of military forces stationed in the Arctic, at a cost of $5.3 Billion over five years. The priority would be to detect and respond to foreign ships and others in the Arctic.

Mr. Martin has gone on the defensive, attacking the Conservative plan with two claims: first, that the icebreakers will cost at least $1 Billion each plus $150 Million per annum to operate; and second, in the words of Defence Minister Bill Graham, that the plan is an expensive response to a non-existent military threat.

Mr. Graham might be having some difficulty in remembering that he took a costly trip to the Arctic not long ago to help reestablish Canadian claims to an island repeatedly “visited” by the Danish army.

Why offer himself up in such hypocrisy? Criticisms tend to sound less partisan when they come out of Ministers’ mouths than the campaigning party leader. Besides which, all parties seem to agree that the region is only going to grow in importance.

As Mr. Layton put it, global warming is likely to make the Canadian north more amenable both to shipping and to exploration for mineral and other natural resources. His proposals, to increase locals’ role in the development and benefit from these resources is a classic strategy for sovereign control (as well as a prudent campaign promise): make sure that the locals have a vested interest in promoting your control of the region.

The prospect of global warming means a harder time for Canadians. Ensuring sovereign control over the Arctic isn’t merely a spitting contest between states — it is the only way to enforce Canadian interests such as environmental protection, resource extraction, and the rule of law. If Canada fails to develop the capacity to enforce its jurisdiction in the North, others will expand their own sovereignty to take on the role.

The Liberals point out that there are presently over 4,000 Army Rangers covering the North; but a quick check shows that only about 1,600 of those are actually in the Territories (and many of those in northern BC and Alberta).

As for the cost question, the United States Coast Guard has just requisitioned $110 Million USD for the acquisition of a new heavy icebreaker for use on the Great Lakes. Is it conceivable that an Arctic version will cost at least eight times as much? Hardly. Arctic-use icebreakers cost the US Coast Guard $11 Million each to operate in 1994. Why would it cost the federal government more than three times as much to operate Canadian icebreakers a mere ten years later? With inflation, we’d expect a 30% increase over that time, not 200%. Isn’t the US military known for overinflated costs anyway? Does the Liberal party have a source for a quotation on icebreakers which it produced in less than a day? It was a fairly quick response. Did they go with the first quote? And were they on the public payroll or the party payroll when they did it?

The question really isn’t whether Canadians need to have the capacity to respond to sovereignty threats and rescue efforts in the vast Arctic region — it’s how much is necessary to achieve that aim. Misleading quotations of troop figures and brash announcements of massive investment do the same thing for the debate: little. A campaign is a poor time to refine policy — it must be at its bluntest to avoid seeming insignificant. The pity is that Canadians may respond to such sweeping statements and genuine needs with indifference; and the North which succours their identity deserves better.

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