Harper’s Arctic vision is an assertive stance
Astute politicians generally avoid conflict, but this week Stephen Harper stood on the deck of an Arctic ship waving a red flag at the international community.
Harper announced that foreign ships sailing in Canadian Arctic waters in the Northwest Passage must report to federal authorities. He also intends to extend Canada’s pollution enforcement zone to 200 kilometres from 100 kilometres. These bold and definitive positions may well raise international tensions, as Harper acknowledged. In fact, the U.S.government, which does not recognize Canada’s claim to the Northwest Passage, has already signalled it intends to “discuss the proposal with Canada” to ensure it does not violate international law.
So be it. There is certainly some risk attached to this assertive stance, but the prime minister is sending exactly the right message — that Canada is prepared to assert its authority and back up its sovereignty — in this increasingly sensitive waterway.
Harper also outlined in detail the northern vision his government has been developing for the past three summers. It’s safe to say major change is afoot.
The vast, isolated territory would be opened up to mining and drilling as economic development of oil, gas, diamonds, and gold takes top priority. While known reserves are plentiful enough, Harper unveiled a $100-million plan to kick start geo-mapping the land to determine the location of other mineral deposits.
“Managed properly, Canada’s share of this incredible endowment will fuel the prosperity of the country for generations.”
It’s an exciting and dynamic vision and it will also be controversial. The key words for many Canadians will be “managed properly.”
As Harper certainly knows, the northern environment is fragile, easily damaged and slow to recover. An oil spill in the frigid waters would be disastrous, drilling will have an impact on the unique flora and fauna and run into stiff opposition from environmentalists.
Using economic development to reinforce Canada’s claims to sovereignty makes good sense. But Harper also needs to send a signal that he takes environmental issues seriously.
There’s an obvious place for Harper to show some leadership, and that’s with the stalled debate over the future of polar bear populations.
In a surprise move, Environment Minister John Baird this week decided to put off a decision on whether to declare the polar bear a threatened species. Baird instead called for a roundtable in November to come up with the best course of action.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government recently declared the polar bear a “threatened” species. A grim report predicted that two-thirds of the world’s polar bears, including most in Canada’s western Arctic, will disappear by 2050 as the sea ice continues to melt.
If Harper wants to gain some credibility for his vision, he should move ahead quickly and devise a plan to protect threatened bear populations.
As Harper knows, his vision of mining and drilling is possible due to the receding sea ice. Climate change has made accessible the vast and once-frozen land.
But the same global warming that opens up economic opportunity is also threatening an iconic and crucial species. Some urgent and concrete action to keep healthy polar bear populations is also in order.