I recently read about Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s tour of the Arctic. While Arctic sovereignty remains an issue for the government, Harper is also focusing on matters relating to health and welfare.
The issue of arctic sovereignty is nothing new for Canada and it has always been, for the most part, a priority over health and welfare.
Quite frankly, Ottawa’s timid policies in the North have been downright comical since the turn of the 20th century. Without a clear idea of how to execute its goals and objectives, Canada’s fumbling has left the Arctic vulnerable. It had a large part to play in allowing for countries - Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States - to boldly test its nerves.
Despite holding the title to Rupert’s Land, Ottawa generally treated the North with naive indifference leading it to be less pro-active and more reactive.
As the nation expanded territorially, in population and in economic stature at the turn of the 20th century, the arctic was perceived to be a barren piece of wasteland. Despite Canada’s growth, it lacked a certain maturity when it came to asserting its interests - a character trait we still possess.
It wasn’t until American whalers, present as far back as the 1880s, began to assert themselves in the region (specifically on Herschel Island in the Beaufort Sea) did the government under Sir Wilfrid Laurier decide to take some action by sending a Mounted Police detachment.
Poorly executed and severely undermanned (eight in total over a 16-year period between 1903-1919!), the lack of support from Ottawa left the officers in a precarious if not embarrassing position. For example, they had to rely on the American whalers for equipment and provisions!
Nonetheless, the Mounted Police (Sam Steele and Charles Constantine are two reputable names drenched in Arctic folklore) grew in legend. Somehow, someway, they managed to get things done. In spite of all the odds, a brave Canadian spirit and identity was forged through their work. Alas, has it gone in vain?
Canada tried to occupy a massive territory with too small with no realistic and cohesive plan or workable legal framework. Moreover, it paternalistically employed policies with little or no Native input to their social detriment. Not much has changed.
In the end, Canada was neither able to exert control or take care of its Inuit population.
At present, the Canadian Rangers patrol the area and are a source of Native pride. In 2008, the Harper government called for an expansion from roughly 3000 (mostly reservists) to 5000 by 2012.
The Conservatives are correct to revisit the issue, however, perhaps it should consider giving more autonomy to the region to help defend and enhance Canadian interests.
Either way, it will take a boatload of commitment and cold hard cash along with a harsh dose of realism to exert permanent control once and for all.