The Canadian Arctic as the Centre of the World (and Canada)

21CQ Topic President's Blog


Irvin Studin


4 years ago

On July 26th, 21CQ, in partnership with the Government of the Northwest Territories, hosted an historic national (half-day) mini-conference on the Arctic Question – entitled “Toward a Plan – Strengthening Canada’s Position in the Arctic.” The mini-conference also celebrated the 10th anniversary of Global Brief magazine.

The event was held at the beautiful Faculty Club on the campus of the University of Toronto. We had a full house – a paradoxical, pre-election excitement in the hall about the idea of discussing the “frozen North” at the peak of the summer heat in “Southern Canada”. Of course, this paradoxical juxtaposition was part of the event’s very deliberate choreography.

The logic of the conference was driven by two verities: first, that climate change and geopolitical dynamics had very quickly made the “opening of the Arctic” arguably the world’s second great “opening” this century, with the return of China and Asia being the first one, but with the Arctic opening being just as huge in scale and world-historical terms; and second, that Canada could only succeed in the Arctic, in all its dimensions, if it developed and implemented a bona fide long-term national “plan” for the Arctic (emphasis on the somewhat “undemocratic”-sounding term “plan”). What kind of plan? 10 years? Or perhaps even 25 years or 50 years, as some of the participants in the conference eventually argued? And could this long-term Canadian plan have serious and credible “term-setting” characteristics? Did we even have the requisite vocabulary for such a large-scale national plan yet?

The event was graciously moderated by Jean Charest, former Premier of Quebec and Deputy Prime Minister of Canada. NWT Premier Bob McLeod opened the proceedings with a very original keynote address, in which he explained the urgency of national political and economic attention and action on the Arctic and North, but also, critically, began to make the case for the centrality of the Arctic to Canada’s future – something that included Canada as a “term-setter” in the international evolution of the Arctic in the context of competing larger countries that could themselves seek to impose “terms” on Canada before long. (I return to McLeod’s remarks below.)

Premier Joe Savikataaq of Nunavut also attended the conference. He spoke on the second panel – the so-called “Statespersons’” panel – along with former Liberal MP and current CEO of the Canada West Foundation Martha Hall Findlay and former minister of defence Peter MacKay. Premier McLeod also returned to speak as part of this second panel.Let me note that Savikataaq silenced the audience when, in response to Jean Charest’s half-rhetorical question about why Canada should invest in the (neglected) North, the Premier stated matter-of-factly: “Because we’re Canadians.” Shortly thereafter, Savikataaq explained, to a slightly stunned audience, that some 70% of children in Nunavut go to bed hungry.” How could this be the case in Canada? – was the general implied sentiment in the room.

The conference’s opening panel – the so-called “Experts’” panel – featured Professor Fred Lazar of the Schulich School of Business (York University), Wilfrid Greaves of the University of Victoria, and Jennifer Spence of Carleton University and also the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). I too participated in this panel – part host and part expert.


Premier McLeod’s Keynote Address

In his vision remarks – remarks that set the tone for the overall conference – Premier McLeod stressed that climate change was a very raw, present reality for Canada’s Arctic and North already, and that Canadian strategy and policies needed to reckon with this reality “as it is”. He cited the various advances of other major Arctic or “Arctic-interested” states – led by Russia, but also the US, the European Nordics and China – and asked, pointedly, “Where is Canada?” By “Canada”, McLeod was referring to both the country as a whole as well as to Ottawa, which must surely lead in mobilizing the country if Canada is to be taken seriously in the huge emerging Arctic space.

Said McLeod: “Canada has no guarantee that the interests of these other state actors coincide with its own interests and priorities. Nor can we be certain that existing rules, agreements and international institutions are still up to the task of reconciling and settling competing interests in the Arctic space – in what is effectively Canada’s own backyard.

“Generations of Canadians and their governments have grown used to thinking of the Arctic as ‘up there somewhere’. They have been content to let the Arctic take care of itself, secure in the belief that it is a remote and isolated place which only the local people are interested in. This is a mistake – one that could have significant national and international consequences for Canada.

“Global powers like Russia, the United States, China, and leading European states are moving fast to extend their influence and control in the Arctic through massive investments, increased marine traffic and partnerships with traditional and non-traditional allies to advance Arctic projects and positioning.

“Countries like these are ramping up their Arctic presence and level of activity within their borders, and across the circumpolar world.  This is an effort to both secure opportunities for themselves and to influence the international rules and policies that will set the terms for what happens in the Arctic.”

McLeod made the case for a long-term, credible national plan for the Arctic based on three (3) elements:

  • leveraging the geographic advantage represented by the three territories (NWT, Yukon and Nunavut);
  • ramping up Canada’s northern presence; and
  • increasing Canada’s knowledge about the North.


Geographic Advantage:

The Premier began to sketch out a vision of Canada’s Arctic and North – the three territories, in particular – as a global economic and transportation hub. (I build on this framework in my notes below.)

Said Premier McLeod: “Canada’s North is closer to key markets in all the major global trading blocs – including Europe, Asia and Russia – than most other regions of North America. Yellowknife is just over 6,600 kilometres by air from Moscow, compared to the almost 7,500 kilometres between Moscow and Toronto. Iqaluit to Oslo is 3,900 kilometres, compared to almost 6,000 from Toronto, and a 10,500 kilometre flight from Toronto to Beijing would be reduced to 6,600 kilometres from Inuvik.

“The circumpolar sea route can cut as much as 20 days off the time it takes to reach Asia from Europe via ship. Other countries know this and they have already been making moves to secure control over these routes, both through their active use and by advancing claims over their status as national or international channels.

“From the Mackenzie River delta, a trade route through the Beaufort Sea and Bering Strait to Tokyo would be 3,800 nautical miles. That shaves off 500 nautical miles from the trade route between Vancouver and Tokyo and a staggering 1,300 nautical miles from the route between Russia’s Yamal Peninsula and Japan.

“Canada should be leveraging this comparative proximity to these international markets and investing significantly in transportation infrastructure in all three northern territories. Growing and expanding territorial airports can make them a major trans-shipment point for goods moving between Asia, North America and Europe, especially if there is supporting investment in connecting infrastructure like roads and railways linking us to southern Canada.

“Similarly, investments in deep water ports and marine facilities along Canada’s Arctic coast can help to capture trade that is already travelling the polar route and which is sure to increase in coming years, as well as tourist and scientific traffic that is also sure to grow.”


Physical Presence:

McLeod observed that, with a total population of 115,000 across all three territories, the Arctic population was unacceptably low for Canada to be able to set any credible terms in respect of the future of the Arctic this century. He compared this population to Russia’s 2 million Arctic population. (If Russia’s population represents half of the total global circumpolar population of 4 million, then Canada’s Arctic population represents less than 3% of this population.) Again, McLeod:

“It is hard to achieve the economies of scale that can truly drive growth and prosperity when our population is a sliver of the population in the rest of the circumpolar world.

“Our small population also limits our ability to even know what is going on in the Arctic right now. What is our current capacity to monitor the Arctic coastline and shipping with limited people and assets?

“How long will it take Canada to even learn of a maritime or environmental incident, and then effectively respond to and manage it? What effect would such a delay have on the Arctic, its people and its environment?”

McLeod is also on the record as having advocated for a Northern Immigration Strategy (note that Yukon has done some cutting-edge work recently on northern immigration, and is out soon with its first immigration strategy in over a decade), as well as a military base of 5,000 people in Inuvik (a major Canadian Arctic centre with considerable ramp-up capacity) and a floating Canadian Arctic university.


Knowledge About the Arctic and North:

McLeod closed his remarks by stating, categorically, that Canada could not be effective in the Arctic and North if its citizens and decision-makers did not have a proper appreciation of the realities of this huge region.

He said: “As a northern nation, Canada should make it a priority to ensure that more of its citizens have an opportunity to experience the Arctic and learn what it really means to be ‘northern’. Policy and decision makers need to have experience in and understand the territories, where they can gain the direct, first-hand knowledge and experience to make good evidence-based decisions. Government policy makers need to be headquartered in the territories if they want to truly understand the geopolitical, economic and environmental dimensions of northern policy and decisions.

“Knowing the Arctic also means significantly ramping up Canada’s scientific research capacity and Arctic academic infrastructure. If Canada wants to understand how climate change affects the North and how to adapt to it, we need significant investment in scientific research programs and facilities to support that.”


The Experts’ Panel (Irvin Studin, Fred Lazar, Jennifer Spence, Wilfrid Greaves)

I opened this first panel by urging the audience to imagine Yellowknife as a Singapore- or Dubai-like hub for the entire Arctic theatre – that is, in the first instance, as a global air transportation hub, for civilian and cargo traffic alike, connecting continental North America with China and Asia, Russia and Eurasia, and Scandinavia and the EU. This is, first and foremost, an intellectual construction – it is to be built, as was done in Singapore and Dubai. In toto, this would put the Canadian Arctic at the heart of a 2 billion-person market – that is, a market 6 times larger than the American market alone – thereby placing Yellowknife and the three territories not only at the “centre of Canada” but indeed at the “centre of the entire world”, as it were. We might even all this association of Arctic-trading states, hubbed in Yellowknife (or Whitehorse or Inuvik) the “Arctic League” (recalling the old Hanseatic League of Baltic Europe).

Fred Lazar observed that there are four industries that are vital for all economies: transportation services, telecommunication services, energy distribution, and financial services. Everything else, according to Lazar, could be supplied from elsewhere. Lazar focussed on transportation services,suggesting both a practical need for the Northand a blue-sky opportunity for a bona fide Northern international airport in one of Yellowknife or Whitehorse. Lazar noted that before long-haul jets, Anchorage served as a key refuelling stop for routes between North America and Asia. KLM built its network by developing Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport to connect Europe to Asia and North America. Singapore Airlines followed the same strategy using Singapore’s Changi airport to connect Asia to Asia, Europe and North America. Emirates has developed the airport in Dubai into the third largest in the world by using it to connect Asia to Europe, North America and Africa. So why not explore with Chinese carriers the idea of creating a hub in a Northern Canadian city to connect eastern and southern Asia to western and central North America and western South America? Or possibly attract FedEx or even Amazon to do the same on the cargo side? Of course, this would require a change in existing air service treaties, lengthening the runways at the relevant Northern airport, 24/7 operations at the airport, and a significant investment in expanding the terminal.


Lazar also stressed the long overdue imperative for Canada to connect the North with the South of the country via a complete network of roads. He said that it was similarly important to connect Northern communities among themselves with roads.


Jennifer Spence, noting the recent announcement by Ottawa regarding Telesat and broadband capacity for the North, built on the infrastructure theme in her remarks, stressing the need for both existential and connecting infrastructure in the North – on a macro scale, with sustainability. This applied to communications (e.g. in remote areas), transportation and energy.

For his part, Wilfrid Greaves raised the need to incorporate climate change into all future public and private planning in respect of the North. He noted that 2018 was the most expensive year on record for insurance claims due to natural events. He also spoke of political risk related to climate change in the North – in particular in the context of a Canadian Arctic that is, unbeknownst to the South, increasingly becoming an urbanized region (a trend that would surely intensify in the coming years and decades).


The Statespersons’ Panel (Bob McLeod, Martha Hall Findlay, Peter MacKay, Joe Savikataaq)

In his intervention on the Experts’ panel, Premier McLeod reiterated the need for clarity of national vision in respect of the Arctic and North – more directly, for the North to be a central part of any national vision. He challenged each of the federal political parties to be direct and serious in this respect.

Martha Hall Findlay called for a 25-year Canadian plan for the Arctic. She warned that Ottawa, however, would not necessarily (reliably) be the central driver of such a plan or such activity, but rather that the provinces and territories might have to lead. She expressed significant concern that Canada was too dependent on the U.S. for its prospects in (and thinking about) the Arctic – and perhaps more generally. Hall Findlay also shared with the audience the fact that there was growing unrest and impatience in the West of the country, in political, economic and social terms, and that Ottawa and Central Canada did not seem to be alive to this growing unrest. On this logic, she pointed out that the West and North of the country had significant economic, political and psychological ties – again, perhaps underappreciated in the rest of the country.

Peter MacKay spoke about Arctic sovereignty, expressing worry about Russia’s possible intentions and significant assets in the circumpolar region. He suggested that Canada should revisit its position on missile defence, and also made the case for eventual provincial status for each of the three Northern territories.

Premier Savikataaq noted that Nunavut represents about 21% of the Canadian landmass, and that Canada could not be a strong country this century without a strong Arctic. But Savikataaq was, as mentioned above, very direct in his remarks to the Southern audience:

“Nunavummiut are struggling. Struggling with the cost of healthy food, access to adequate healthcare and with the most basic services most Canadians take for granted every single day. Things like housing, access to mental health and addictions treatment, education and training, power transmission and transportation corridors, fibre optics and connectivity. Life expectancy for Nunavummiut is 71.8 years,which is almost 10 years lower than the Canadian average.Our infant mortality rate is three times higher than the rest of Canada, and our tuberculosis case rate is 50 times the national average. A staggering 62 per cent of Nunavummiut over 12 years old are tobacco smokers,compared to 18 per cent of Canadians of the same age.Nunavut Inuit struggle disproportionately with mental health issues, and face high rates of addiction, abuse and suicide as a result of rapid social transformation, forced relocations, forced attendance of residential schools, and chronic underfunding of key programs and services. Suicide was declared a public health crisis in our territory in 2015.”

On the reality of climate change in the Arctic, Savikataaq said: “Nunavut feels the effects of climate change more than any other jurisdiction, even though we emit almost no greenhouse gas emissions. We are the first to be affected by climate change, and our communities are changing and suffering because of that.The permafrost layer is melting and could destabilize many of the buildings in our communities. This would render many of our homes and workplaces unsafe and burden homeowners, business people and governments with massive costs for repairs.Similarly, the rapid transformations to the tundra and the Arctic Ocean will further impact our ability to access the land and marine species,leaving the livelihood of our hunters, our fishers, our tourism outfitters,our seamstresses, and our artists in jeopardy. We need to find ways to mitigate climate change in our communities, but we are entirely reliant on diesel fuel at the moment. I realize this must be almost incomprehensible to many of you. But until the federal government can get us off diesel, we are in a holding pattern. Protecting our environment requires collaborative support from partners and stakeholders. We must push forward on key priorities such as climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies, comprehensive drinking water and waste management systems, and expanded monitoring programs to gather data on and understand changes to our wildlife and our lands.


“It’s time the rest of Canada understands the great disparity between southerners and northerners. To do this, the federal government – any federal government – needs to commit to direct, strategic investments to meet our urgent needs.Any and all infrastructure investments will naturally flow back to the rest of Canada, as we are not a manufacturing-based market. It’s clearly a win-win situation for all of us, and one that is necessary for the Arctic to participate fully in the Canadian economy, and finally realize a true Canadian standard for all citizens and families.”


Savikataaq closed powerfully: “Nunavut communities aren’t given the same standard as most Canadian cities and villages. A boil water advisory in Pond Inlet or Whale Cove, or anywhere in Canada, is simply unacceptable. No one would stand fora long-term boil water advisories in Toronto or Montreal or Calgary, so why is it acceptable anywhere else? We need to stop pretending Northern problems aren’t Canadian problems and fix them, once and for all.Fostering success in the Arctic is necessary in nation-building. It is, in fact, the only way to fully achieve it. We all know how much work needs to be done to ensure we can realize reconciliation. As an Inuk, I know how very important this is.As you may be aware, Nunavut celebrates its 20th anniversary this year – 20 years of growth, of lessons learned, of finding our way and of creating our own path. On this milestone, I want you all to know that we are hopeful, innovative and ready to succeed.”


Closing Reflections –What’s Next –Studin

Let me make a few additional remarks in order to amplify or sharpen some of the lessons and messages coming out of this historical mini-conference, anticipating the upcoming federal election and transition of government, but also possible international and geopolitical dynamics around the bend – ones that could place ferocious pressure on Canada. All of this, perhaps, en route to Canada’s first-ever “10 year plan”, which surely should start with the Arctic.

  1. The recent supposed interest by President Trump in acquiring Greenland should be taken seriously by Canada in respect of our own territory. In historical terms, the idea of purchasing land for strategic purposes in certainly not without precedent, and American acquisitions of huge swathes of land are well documented – including Alaska in 1867, the year of Canada’s Confederation, specifically in order to frustrate British (i.e. Canadian) strategic interests. As I noted on the Experts’ Panel during the mini-conference, in the context of a possible second term for Trump, Canada should prepare itself for similar possible acquisitional – and even annexation – interests by the U.S. vis-à-vis Canada’s Arctic territories. These are pressures that are completely foreign to the present Canadian strategic imagination, but they could be visited on Canada with great rapidity. Would we know how to respond adequately?
  2.  Canada’s climate change debate is patently inadequate across all party lines. For now, it emphasizes aggressive (even pious) climate change action – mostly according to a “reversal” logic or euphoria – according to an “action vector” that lies almost entirely flush with Canada’s southern cities (Toronto, Vancouver, Montréal, Ottawa, Calgary, etc.). But this agenda is, in its current incarnation, an absurdity both conceptually and in terms of outcomes. On the outcome side of the ledger, it will not succeed in any respect in moving climate change outcomes in Canada and, most assuredly, internationally. Full stop. But in terms of concept, it patently ignores or has absolutely nothing credible to say about the continent-sized swathe of Canada that is most directly and brutally affected already by climate change – to wit, the Arctic and the North. This is both strange and irresponsible. I therefore propose a shift in our Canadian logic on climate change: If Canada becomes a term-setter in the Arctic and North – both for Canadian territory and for much of the overall Arctic theatre beyond Canadian borders – then we will really, definitively be advancing a climate change agenda, in serious and credible terms, both for Canada and the world (given the size of our own Arctic territory, the size of the international circumpolar space, and the centrality of the Arctic this century to the climatic and environmental health of the planet). Is Canada capable of this shift in logic and action?
  3.  Building on Premier McLeod’s excellent proposal of a special economic zone for the Canadian Arctic, let me propose a slight expansion to the nomenclature and conceptual aegis – to wit, the creation of a Special Economic and Environmental Zone (SEEZ) for the Arctic. This would be a uniquely Canadian nomenclature (and conceptual “aegis”), and it would reconcile the unique economic opportunities of the Arctic with the very unique environmental realities and imperatives of the region.
  4.  Who are Canada’s “friends” and “enemies” in the Arctic space? If we are to become a term-setting country in that theatre, then we should not be quick to presume. But if we do not succeed in becoming a term-setting country, then the first country to put us under significant pressure, as mentioned above – including possible annexation pressure, in my judgement – will likely be the U.S.(Watch for some of this foreign term-setting pressure to come very soon from the new proposed Shipping and Environmental Arctic Leadership Act, now before Congress.)As a country, we will only be able to stave off this pressure by imagining and then positioning ourselves as a proper term-setting power. (Or do we, as a country, deep down inside, really just want the Americans to “take care” of the Arctic for us?) The same applies in relation to Russia, with which I maintain Canada can have a very pragmatic, productive, equal-to-equal relationship in the North, as the two leading Arctic powers, provided we behave and are credibly “equipped” as a term-setting country. Finally, regarding China, as I have written previously, there is no reason to see China in the Arctic as anything other than a rent-seeking trading partner, a user of shipping and trading routes, and a scientifically interested player. This should be the essential Canadian interpretation of China’s role in the region. To be sure, there will be non-negligible defence and national security dimensions to the Chinese question in the Arctic (and even moreso vis-à-vis Russia), but a more sophisticated near-term Canadian engagement with the leading Asian power – not too far at all from us, geographically, via the Arctic – would be to use the Arctic theatre as the primary breaking ground for “defusing” or “off-ramping” the present standoff between Ottawa and Beijing and therefore “renewing” the logic of the bilateral relationship. Can Canada think along these lines?
  5.  The matter of “thinking” requires that Canada develop – indeed “found” – a bona fide Canadian school of strategy with the greatest urgency.Such a Canadian “school” – i.e. ideology, doctrine and framework – should have its own vocabulary, concepts and, of course, institutions, fit for the needs, pressures and also opportunities of this new century. Most importantly, it should rise, stubbornly, to the challenges – including the fierce Arctic challenge – that will confront Canada in the coming years and decades. I will address this in a future blog and GB micro-lecture.

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