The arctic: Au nord, peu de nouveau

WELLS: “The Harper government’s real-world Arctic policy is moving closer to the real world, which means it is getting less spectacular”

The Globe’s John Ibbitson does the thing we’ve all had to do, attempting to insert some drama into a report because he has exclusive access to it.

“In a historic shift, Canada will make finding solutions to Arctic boundary disputes this country’s top foreign-policy priority in the Far North, according to a Foreign Affairs paper that will be released on Friday.

“The Conservative government now wants swift and permanent solutions to border issues that this and previous governments had preferred to leave unresolved.”

The point of it all? To “transform the Arctic from a hotbed of jurisdictional conflicts into a stable, rules-based region.” It’s like the opening up of the west all over again. Cartesian rigour and the common sense of the common law combining to tame a lawless frontier.

This is, it must be said, the way everyone is required to talk about the Arctic ever since Harper signed that secret Order-in-Council, “Let’s All Huff and Puff About the Arctic,” in 2006. The problem, as I wrote a year ago, is that across the vast majority of its territory the Arctic is already a stable, rules-based region; that its jurisdictional conflicts are so few in nature and trivial in stakes as to produce only a lukewarm hotbed at best; and that on the only really hard issue, navigation rights through the Northwest Passage (which is the only point of dispute in that waterway; Canada’s control of lands and resources is uncontested) we’d probably lose any legal dispute.

Say, what does the report have to say about the Northwest Passage anyway? “The report…does not tackle the dispute over control of the Northwest Passage,” John writes. Good news.

There is, instead, language on the Beaufort Sea, where Canada and the US have competing, reasonable ideas about where the maritime border should be drawn; Hans Island, a worthless rock in a useless place that we tried to turn into an international hotspot several years ago at the National Post; and the Arctic seabed, where Canada’s bold commitment is to “meet” a 2013 United Nations deadline for various countries to file competing claims. I had not been aware there was any question about whether we’d meet it. The work on the seabed consists mostly of survey activity.

The real news here is subtler and confirmed by other recent events. It’s that the Harper government is, at least operationally, climbing down from some of the silly bellicose rhetoric that has characterized the prime minister’s bizarre need to look tough in a region where Canada has neither the means nor the need. As John writes, “the report does signal to other northern nations that this country wants to advance a shared agenda for the Far North rather than simply to assert territorial claims. The Foreign Affairs paper, in short, declares that Canada means what it said recently about resolving Arctic conflicts.”

It declares, in slightly less short, that Canada does not really mean what Harper said when he told a campaign rally in 2006,

“And now there are new and disturbing reports of American nuclear submarines passing through Canadian waters without obtaining the permission of—or even notifying—the Canadian government. It’s time to act to defend Canadian sovereignty. A Conservative government will make the military investments needed to secure our borders. As Prime Minister, I will make it plain to foreign governments—including the United States—that naval vessels travelling in Canadian waters will require the consent of the government of Canada.”

Probably you’ll still hear talk like this. It’s catnip to our man at 24 Sussex. But the Harper government’s real-world Arctic policy is moving closer to the real world, which means it is getting less spectacular. Settling the second-order disputes this new Foreign Affairs paper apparently lists will require compromises and small losses for Canada in return for greater certainty. This year’s iteration of Op Nanook is a cooperative affair, with substantial participation by American and Danish forces.

This is only right: one of the imaginary exercises Op Nanook will tackle this year is an Arctic oil spill. Remember how hard it was for the mightiest country on Earth to handle one of those in the cozy, warm, easily accessible Gulf of Mexico? It was on all the news. Anderson Cooper nearly bust a gasket. Imagine trying to handle anything even a tiny fraction of that size in the frozen middle of nowhere, while pretending we had to do it ourselves because of some prideful assertion of sovereignty.

In June Michel Rocard, the former French prime minister who is now France’s envoy on Arctic matters, gave a speech in Ottawa where he took note of Canada’s claims to exclusive control and responsibility over a vast territory and seaway in one of the world’s most austere environments. He did not offer a detailed critique of the claim; he couldn’t stop chuckling long enough to come up with one. “Bonne chance avec ça, les amis” was the best he could manage.

One presumes the Harper goverment will still find red herrings in the Arctic ocean as required. But its policy is moving closer to a recognition of facts so basic even this government could not long have ignored them.

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