To our Arctic-bound prime minister: Bon voyage, but ...

… before you head off to points north, you might want to read — or at least have your speech-and-talking-points writers read — this  report on Canadian public opinion on Arctic sovereignty, which was put together by Environics Research for National Defence earlier this year.

Among the findings:

  • “Canadians, and Northerners in particular, are broadly aware of the topics of sovereignty and security in Canada’s Arctic region,” they are “less inclined than in the past to express concern about Canada’s Arctic sovereignty”
  • In both the provinces and the territories, Canadians “identify the environment/climate change as the leading top-of-mind issue facing the North” — in fact, the “relative salience of other issues, including Arctic sovereignty, resource and mineral rights, and unemployment, trails well behind”
  • According to Environics, the majority also believe that the federal government “should not give sovereignty priority over other issues, such as health care or the environment.”

As for strengthening Canada’s control over the Arctic, it would seem that there is more support for sending in the cartographers than the cavalry:

Northerners believe the most effective way for Canada to strengthen its control over Arctic territory is to conduct more research and mapping of Arctic geography and resources, while Southerners consider this and negotiations with other countries that have Arctic claims to be equally effective. By comparison, increasing Canada’s military presence in the North and increasing the number of people in the North are considered – by residents of both regions – to be less effective approaches to strengthening Canadian sovereignty.

ITQ, for her part, was particularly intrigued by the response to a DND/Canadian Forces media backgrounder on Arctic sovereignty, which gives us a pretty good idea of what a lot of Canadians are going to want to hear  — and, perhaps more importantly from a political perspective, what they don’t want to hear — from the prime minister during his upcoming trip:

Many participants, particularly in Whitehorse, expressed scepticism about the key messages in the CF/ DND backgrounder. Some felt that is was unlikely that anything mentioned in the backgrounder would actually happen; they felt that they had heard many of these promises before and that they now “rang empty”: “This has all been said before, but is it actually going to happen?” Some felt that the messages were vague, and amounted to little more than “political talking points that are supposed to make you feel better but don’t mean anything.” Some participants were concerned that there was no indication in the backgrounder as to whether territorial governments and indigenous peoples had been involved in the planning; there was a sense that local interests and voices should be consulted on such a topic.

Some participants were concerned that there was no indication in the backgrounder as to whether territorial governments and indigenous peoples had been involved in the planning; there was a sense that local interests and voices should be consulted on such a topic.

Some participants, particularly younger Canadians and those in Montreal, demanded context and reasons for the strong military stance expressed in the backgrounder. They felt that the messages were focused on security and protection, and used emotionally charged language to convey the information. Some asked whether there was a real fear of invasion that would justify such a tone and stance: “Are we going to war with someone?”

In general, these participants did not think that there was enough context in the backgrounder to identify the threats to Canada’s sovereignty and justify what they perceived as an overly militaristic message: “I don’t see anyone marching over the Arctic trying to take the land, or sending ships to take it.” Others simply felt that there was too much focus on the military, and wanted to see more emphasis placed on an increased civilian presence along with the military presence; some wanted to see more use of the Coast Guard or the RCMP in patrolling, or more mention of non-military initiatives such as exploration, mapping and scientific research in the North.

Some participants objected to the focus on military initiatives because they felt that other issues and problems are just as, or more, important. These participants felt that the government should be focusing on the people in the North, and their desperate need for social services, clean water and housing, rather than on water and land disputes: “the people are the country, not the land.” Others felt that an emphasis on environmental issues should take precedence over sovereignty concerns. Some participants stressed the necessity to undertake diplomatic negotiations now to establish treaties that would clearly define our borders and territorial influence over the waterways, and felt that the backgrounder did not place enough emphasis on diplomatic options.

On the other hand, some participants actively welcomed the key messages concerning an increased military presence in the North: “we’re going to have to step up and claim it.” These participants responded positively to the information that the government planned to increase patrols, acquire new patrol ships, strengthen the Rangers and build new military installations in the North, although there was a sense that what was mentioned in the backgrounder was only the beginning of what would be needed. In particular, some participants were concerned that there seemed to be relatively little reference in the backgrounder to air, satellite and electronic surveillance of the far North. Many felt that, given the extent of the territory involved and the limited number of ships available, that overflights and other forms of surveillance would be essential in protecting Canada’s North.

There was a strong response to the key messages concerning control of shipping in the North, and particularly the need to legislate and regulate shipping activity in order to protect the waterways and Arctic wildlife from environmental damage. In fact, for some participants, the most important reason for asserting Canada’s sovereignty over the Passage is so that Canada can police ships in its waters, preventing dumping of wastes, oil spills and other environmental pollutants, and ensuring that anyone passing through Canada’s internal waterways has to observe Canadian law. However, some participants were concerned that the Canadian presence in the North, even with these announced increases, will not be adequate to patrol all waterways, and enforce Canada’s regulations with respect to pollution, customs and other issues.

Others thought that the backgrounder was intended as a message to other countries, either in its current form, or as briefing notes for diplomats or politicians in speaking to representatives of other nations, letting those who might be considering challenges to Canada’s Arctic sovereignty know what the government is prepared to do to enforce its territorial boundaries.

Participants identified two possible audiences for the backgrounder. Many felt that it was aimed at the Canadian public, or possibly at people in Canada’s North, and intended to inform Canadians about the government’s plans and initiatives on this topic, and let them know that “something is being done.” Some felt is was intended as talking points during an election, to inform voters about the government’s platform and policies with reference to the North.

Most participants felt that members of the government would be appropriate spokespeople for a message of this nature; specific persons mentioned included the Prime Minister, the Ministers of Defence, Northern Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Economic Development or Public Safety, or the Governor General. Other potential spokespersons mentioned included Members of Parliament from the North, high-ranking military officials, high-profile public figures from the North or from northern indigenous communities, and David Suzuki.

The report does note that participants “were not told that the key messages were existing media lines drafted by DND/CF,” and suggests that “some of the criticism of the strong military slant of the backgrounder might have been muted had participants been aware that the backgrounder was a DND/CF document.”

Still, if I were planning the PM’s tour, I’d want to make sure that he spends just as much time highlighting the non-military components of his Arctic strategy as he does on Operation Nanook, although probably not to the extent of having him hug a polar bear — or David Suzuki, for that matter — but surely there are some research scientists in the vicinity who would be up for a prime ministerial visit. It might not make for quite as dramatic a photo op  landing a chopper on the deck of a frigate, but it would likely go over just as well with the public.

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