"If you really want a foreign policy for the Arctic, all Canadians will have to consider that part of the world as one of strategic importance to Canada." (Paul Painchaud, The Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, 7th Report, April 1997)
Canada’s initial engagement with the circumpolar world dates back to the early 1990s when Ottawa and other Arctic capitals jointly created the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) that eventually became the Arctic Council, established twenty years ago by the Ottawa Declaration.
The Canadian foreign policy approach in the early post-Cold War years brought significant contributions to Arctic governance, such as drawing in the new Russian Federation into a now twenty-year cycle of uninterrupted cooperation on environmental security; engaging the United States into Arctic politics through the Arctic Council; and most of all ensuring that indigenous peoples across the region were politically represented in circumpolar affairs.
It was Canada’s initial intent in the 1990s to “shape the nature and thrust of circumpolar affairs, and Canada’s central place therein.” But its ambition to lead in Arctic politics has nevertheless continued to decline over the last two decades, while paradoxically the need for regional engagement by Canada has continued to increase throughout the 2000s.
Climate change and globalization have transformed Arctic politics.
New actors have appeared on the regional scene. Non-Arctic states are increasingly eager to engage in circumpolar affairs; China, France, Germany, the EU and others are pushing their own Arctic interests that defy traditional regional geopolitics. Also, non-traditional security and safety challenges are rapidly making their way to Arctic states’ and sub-national agendas that require long-term planning and updated and innovative policies for a region undergoing multiple transformations.
As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Ottawa Declaration and the establishment of the Arctic Council, the current Trudeau government should commence a foreign policy shift that would place the Arctic region as a core area of interest and influence for Canadians. The goal is to ultimately seek innovative ways to gain benefits to northerners and contribute to regional stability in a rapidly changing Arctic environment.
A refined approach could be focused on these three pillars.
First, a revamped Canadian Arctic foreign policy should encourage national bottom-up collaborations with provinces, territories and indigenous organizations as a way to address multi-level national-international governance issues. Indeed, sub-national activity across the Arctic has grown over the last twenty years, meaning that circumpolar central governments are just one of many other political actors advancing their interests and policies across the region. Given that Arctic policy implementation is led at the sub-national level, the federal government should initiate and/or support new policy coordination initiatives to advance common interests that promote Canada’s foreign policy.
Second, it is important for Canada to reinforce its relations with its Nordic, Russian and American neighbours on sustainable economic development. Through stronger international linkages which promote knowledge transfers, Ottawa could lead the way in establishing new cross-national relations that promote multilevel and multi-regional exchanges on renewable energy, northern housing design, food systems, telecommunications, transportation and northern infrastructure, as well as Arctic-focused technologies. These concrete actions also offer tools to reinforce regional stability through dialogue based on mutually reinforcing regional interconnected interests.
Finally, as hinted by the current Canadian foreign policy minister, Stéphane Dion, the Arctic is an ideal area and setting to reset Ottawa’s bilateral economic and security relations with Russia. Engagement with Moscow and other Russian sub-state actors is the best option for mitigating any perceived threat Russia poses to Canada’s national security. Since the end of the Cold War, Canada’s bilateral relationship with Russia has sought to strengthen and support Russian moderates working towards greater internationalism. Despite former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s attempts to isolate Russia as a result of the ongoing Ukrainian-Russian crisis, the current government should not undermine that relationship and should continue to develop its diplomatic outreach with Russia, given that it is Canada’s ‘northern neighbour’ and partner in the region.
Canada has a window of opportunity to reshape the Arctic dimension to its foreign policy through increased cooperation and dialogue with traditional and non-traditional Arctic actors. This approach not only makes sense for Canada as an Arctic nation and power, it also has been and will continue to be beneficial to northerners and Canada as a whole. Through innovative policies that foster sustainable economic development, innovation, science and collaborative measures and thus enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of regional stewardship, Ottawa’s redesigned Arctic policy can help shape the nature and thrust of circumpolar affairs in interesting times, and Canada’s indispensable role in Arctic governance.