As the more densely populated regions in the country, it is not unusual that Western and Eastern Canada receive the most attention from political candidates in discussions of national security, economic expansion, social services, and political unification. By contrast, for the four candidates running to be the next Leader of the Conservative Party (and Leader of the Opposition), the North has been a key focal point and topic of interest.
Concerns about Northern Canada, specifically about Arctic security and sovereignty, have been shared by many Conservative politicians and Prime Ministers from John Diefenbaker to Stephen Harper. Targeting the North has long been seen as a (mostly) Conservative strategy in Canada, particularly with Stephen Harper’s reinvigorated focus on the militarization of the Arctic during his term. However, the significance of the territories holds immense weight in national discourse and is arguably gaining more importance as natural resource extraction comes into play. By addressing key issues affecting the North, Leslyn Lewis, Erin O’Toole, Peter MacKay, and Derek Sloan hope to win as many votes as possible in Nunavut, Northwest Territories, and Yukon.
Platforms and Promises – An Analysis of Each Candidate
Although the extent and depth of Northern policies vary between each candidate, all four have described repealing Bill C-69 as a mandatory step toward preserving Northern sovereignty. The Bill, which makes consultation with local Indigenous communities and climate change guidelines mandatory, has been considered a hindrance in the construction of “essential infrastructure” and large projects, such as pipelines and mines. By making consultation optional, the candidates argue that territorial governments will be able to have unrestricted say in approving major resource projects and making more revenue to fund their economies.
While the candidates may agree on repealing Bill C-69, their focus and knowledge on Arctic policies vastly differ. While Sloan and Lewis are taking a softer approach to change by offering to improve infrastructure and heating in rural Northern regions, O’Toole and MacKay are assuming a more aggressive stance by suggesting the expansion and increased funding of the military in the area. MacKay’s platform specifies that an enhancement of the “icebreaker, air and submarine capacity” will help the region achieve its economic potential, while O’Toole recommends that “completing needed defence infrastructure” will help assert Canadian sovereignty where military presence is spread out and underfunded.
From their debates and portfolios, it is clear that the candidates value support from the North immensely, and are working toward building a stronger voter base in these often-overlooked territories. MacKay, a Nova Scotian native, frequently mentions his endorsement by numerous Northern Conservatives and does not hesitate to make his experience as MP-Central Nova known. O’Toole, having experienced the region during his work as a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, has also made his advocacy known by stating that “Justin Trudeau has turned his back on Northern Canada”, implying that Trudeau’s lack of Northern representation in his cabinet and his one-sided, uncollaborative decisions on the territories’ resources and land has further proven his lack of interest in the region.
Despite not having lived in Northern Canada, Lewis has also attempted to persuade voters of her passion for the North by mentioning her participation in “several Zoom calls with people who live there” and addressing a select few issues. Sloan’s platform does not include an Arctic-specific plan, but does touch upon Indigenous communities in the territories, promising clean drinking water and ensuring “financial transparency on reserves”.
Canada’s Changing Perception and Value of the North
Funding the militarization and surveillance of the Arctic is not a newfound strategy. Former Prime Minister (PM) Stephen Harper’s strategy in the region, which has often been referred to as a part of the “Harper Doctrine” by some scholars, reinforced the need for a stronger military presence in response to concerns about border conflict and possible land grabs. The threat of land grabs has arguably worsened diplomatic ties, with countries such as the United States, Denmark, and Russia contending with Canada over the legitimacy of its claims in the Arctic. Typically defined by its economic potential, land grabs often reflect the goal of securing the wealth of oil and gas in the region.
However, Northern Canada is also experiencing a non-human, existential threat. The effects of climate change are negatively impacting the region’s economic, social, and ecological sectors, with steep increases in average temperatures and precipitation levels. In a briefing prepared for the Senate Standing Committee on Forestry and Agriculture in 2002, the authors cautioned that climate change will disproportionately impact the North, highlighting precarious living conditions in Indigenous communities, poor communities, and delicate ecosystems. The briefing goes on to indicate that there is not enough knowledge or research about the effects of climate change on Northern regions.
Former Prime Minister Stephan Harper is largely credited with having introduced issues of Northern Canada into federal policymaking and the Canadian political consciousness. Despite a heavy focus on militarization (which is not a new concern among Canadian politicians), his campaign also helped shift discourse on Arctic Canada to issues of economic inequality, the lack of basic services, and a limited political representation in national matters.
Arctic security is also not an issue partial to the Conservative Party: thanks to a host of Canadian explorers and artists, as well as the perceived threat of American land-grabbing, Canada’s self-image as an Arctic nation was solidified in the eyes of Canadians. This prompted discussions about Arctic security in public discourse decades before Harper’s strategic interest in it, and other parties have also been active voices in such matters, with the Liberals’ platform in 2006 reflecting the concerns Canadians had for the North.
Canada’s identity is heavily reliant on its Northern territories, with the image of a nation from the “true North, strong and free” being ingrained in Canadians’ minds. The importance of the Arctic, and the Canadians living in the North, is also increasingly entering the public consciousness as a hub of resource extraction and source of wealth, which is different from the one-dimensional discussions of militarization in the past.
Nonetheless, many Northerners still believe that issues surrounding the territories could be given even more weight in upcoming debates in the country. Furthermore, many hope that the 2023 federal election will spark even more national discussion around the provision of sovereignty, security, and social services in the Northern regions of our country.
Edited by Eyitayo Kunle-Oladosu.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.