Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Artic Wars; Canada to the World: Hands Off!

May 16, 2009

As countries scramble to grab a piece of the Arctic, Ottawa is fighting back with an aggressive PR campaign across Europe. The message is simple: This isn't an unclaimed wasteland. It's active, it's a home - and it's ours

In London, the lions of Trafalgar Square share space with the towering image of an Inuit woman and her child. In Paris, an inukshuk greets people leaving the Metro. In Oslo, Ottawa is opening an Arctic political office. And in Brussels, officials are fanning out to promote the image of a cold, northern Canada.

The Harper government has launched an aggressive campaign across Europe to brand Canada as an "Arctic power" and the owner of a third of the contested land and resources of the Far North. Ministers and ambassadors have been instructed to deliver a strong message, through every channel available: Canada owns it; hands off.

This new assertiveness has caught European and Russian officials off guard as Ottawa pushes to fend off attempts by other northern powers and the European Union to claim stakes in the Northwest Passage and the open seas of the High Arctic.

While this involves hard diplomacy, such as Canada's leading role in a move to exclude the EU from sitting on the Arctic Council, Mr. Harper's officials have also ordered embassies abroad to mobilize their cultural resources to deliver this policy message, to create a visual image of a fully Arctic Canada.

The stakes are high. Yesterday, Russia released a report arguing that Arctic resources could spark military confrontations, and Canada recently released a major atlas of the Arctic, the result of research intended to back claims of Arctic land ownership under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

"Canada is an Arctic nation and an Arctic power," Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon told European leaders in Tromso, Norway, at the end of April, while directing his diplomats to adopt an assertive new language around Canada's Arctic possessions. Under his instructions, the new phrase "Arctic power" has begun appearing in communiqués and speeches.

The message for Europe's leaders and citizens is simple and abrupt: The Arctic is not up for grabs. "Through our robust Arctic foreign policy," Mr. Cannon said, "we are affirming our leadership, stewardship and ownership in the region."

The word ownership is key. As Arctic jurisdictional disputes make their way through the United Nations, Ottawa wants to assert its claim to be owner of a third of Arctic land, ice and water, as well as any oil and minerals that happen to lie below.

That is by no means a settled matter. The European Parliament recently stated that it is interested in an international treaty on the Arctic, like the one that governs the Antarctic. The United States and Europe both dispute Canada's claim that the Northwest Passage is purely in Canadian territory. France now has a polar ambassador, former prime minister Michel Rocard, even though France's northernmost point is 1,500 kilometres from the Arctic Circle.

And Canadian officials believe that Europeans are hearing a far stronger message from Russia, which has aggressively industrialized and militarized the Far North and claims ownership of the North Pole, than they do from Canada.

Mr. Cannon led the fight to deflect the EU's attempt to become a "permanent observer" on the Arctic Council, which includes the eight Arctic nations: Canada, the United States, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Russia. While Europe's ban on Canadian seal exports was the excuse, officials said there are worries that the 27-nation EU will try to interfere with agreements among the Arctic nations.

Ottawa is also about to open a Canadian International Centre for the Arctic Region in Oslo. This will be an overtly political institution, designed to counter the messages being sent by Europe and Russia. Mr. Cannon announced that the centre, which will also play a research role, will primarily serve to "promote Canadian interests" and "influence key partners" on Arctic-sovereignty issues.

Behind closed doors, Canada's relations with its Arctic neighbours are actually fairly co-operative these days, in large part because all the Arctic nations agreed last year to settle their disputes using the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. While Mr. Harper and Mr. Cannon have used Cold War-style rhetoric to publicly excoriate Russia for its expansionist ambitions, in private Canada's diplomats have begun meeting again with Russia, after a period of silence, albeit to a limited degree. And Nordic and Canadian diplomats say that the Arctic Council members agreed on most important matters last week.

That is partly because the Arctic has become a closed club, and the new threat to its integrity comes from outside.

"Europeans need to learn that the Arctic is not terra incognita, it is not like the Antarctic," said Peter Harrison, who until last year was the senior federal bureaucrat responsible for Arctic affairs, and now holds a position at Queen's University.

"Many people in Europe believe they should take a role in governing areas that are not anyone's territory. Well, the Arctic happens to be owned by the countries around it, and a third of it is in Canadian territory,"

To get that message across, Canada is devoting a sizable share of its European cultural-diplomacy resources on highly visible projects designed to persuade Europeans that Canada is, and always has been, a northern-oriented country with a human presence in the Arctic.

This is partly intended to correct the image of an open and up-for-grabs Arctic that Mr. Cannon believes is held by many European citizens and leaders. But it also helps establish a "use it or lose it" principle under international law: If sovereignty is challenged in parts of the Far North, Canada needs to show that it has had an active state and citizen presence there. By displaying images of Canadians living and working in the Arctic, Canada establishes a "boots on the ground" reality in European minds.

This is the new public face of Mr. Harper's northern strategy, a government-wide campaign to expand and defend Canada's ownership of its share of the Far North. At home, this involves setting up military bases in the Arctic, patrolling the territory with aerial, satellite and human surveillance, and expanding into the thousands the size of the Arctic Rangers, a semi-volunteer force that sends "sovereignty patrols" into the Far North. And overseas, it involves publicizing this human presence on the ice as widely and strongly as possible, making it appear to be established Canadian territory.

At a meeting in Copenhagen last year, the major Canadian embassies in Europe agreed to launch co-ordinated Arctic-oriented cultural campaigns to deliver Canada's message of assertive Arctic proprietorship. Under the rules of the Harper government, cultural programs abroad must be used to advance policy goals, and Arctic sovereignty is considered a top goal at the moment.

This has led Canada to sponsor or organize a bonanza of polar events in Europe, beginning this season. In Trafalgar Square, Canada House has been given over to a widely publicized exhibition devoted to the art, people and general Canadian-ness of Nunavut; similar exhibitions are taking place in France, Belgium, Germany and Norway.

The message isn't subtle. Visitors are told explicitly that the Inuit dancers, sculptures, photographs and tapestries are being shown to "promote Canada's Arctic foreign-policy priorities."

It also means inserting those priorities into museum exhibitions. Later this month, the London high commission is sponsoring a major exhibition at the Royal Maritime Museum in Greenwich devoted to exploration of the Northwest Passage. The sponsorship is meant to deliver the message that the passage is now fully Canadian territory, not international waters.

Paris is one of several cities to play host to Canadian government events commemorating the 10th anniversary of the territory of Nunavut, including art shows and numerous visits to European countries from Inuit leaders. Governor-General Michaëlle Jean has recently completed a tour of Norway, and several other Arctic programs will be under way this summer across Europe.

These projects risk clashing with Canadian tourism and investment campaigns designed to show that Canada is a modern, urban country with close ties to U.S. markets, and with arts organizations that are discovering that non-Arctic projects are not a priority in Europe at the moment.

But the policy goal is considered paramount. The Russians have taken a leading stand in claiming ownership of contested Arctic territory, with President Dmitry Medvedev telling his country's military leaders last fall that Russia's "first and fundamental task" is to "turn the Arctic into a resource base for Russia in the 21st century."

While Russia and Norway have sizable populations living in the Arctic and considerable industrial and military developments, Canada needs to make a more creative claim of its presence there, officials say.

To that end, they have borrowed a strategy from Norway, whose Arctic agenda, beginning in 2002, set out to promote the Nordic country as a predominantly Arctic place. Norway devotes considerable diplomatic energy to promoting its Arctic image, bringing foreign visitors for tours of its highly populated cities above the Arctic Circle, and building institutions to bring Arctic nations together. The reason, Norwegians say, is that there is a worry that if they don't claim the North, other nations will do it instead.

"After the end of the Cold War, the relevance of the Arctic really fell to a minimum with many administrations," said Kristine Offerdal, a fellow with the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies. "That's why Norway really began pushing the Arctic agenda so much: when our allies didn't have eyes on the region, there was a fear in the Norwegian government that our country would be marginalized."

The best way to secure its ownership of its Arctic regions, Norway's government realized, was to broadcast that ownership as widely and loudly as possible. "Norway felt a need to make itself more visible in the North, and to put Norway's High North region on the map in Washington and Brussels and other major cities."

Mr. Cannon's new language is, in some ways, modelled after Norway's. On the other hand, it often takes on aggressive, threatening, even militaristic tones, such as on Thursday, when he rebuffed Russia's study about military confrontation over the Arctic by declaring on a visit to Asia that he would do anything to protect Canada's Arctic sovereignty.

But much more of his money and energy are devoted to fending off possible challengers who don't own a piece of the Arctic.

"Much to my astonishment, there are still among some European member states people who think that there's nobody who inhabits the North, so therefore I've made a point of going to any international meeting, whether it be on Antarctica, the one that we had in Washington not long ago," Mr. Cannon said on Wednesday, in an interview with the Ottawa magazine Embassy. "Everybody previously said, 'Oh yeah, that's nice, it's the North.' Well, we're out there doing something about it, and, personally, this is one of my priorities."

Because they see this international attitude as a problem, the Harper government, and all its ministers, diplomats and officials, have begun a program to send the world a message. In part it is an encouraging, positive message, designed to contrast Canada with Russia and make us sound like a credible voice on Arctic affairs. Canadian officials say they want to project an image of Canada as a responsible, more ecologically careful and aboriginally oriented steward of the Far North.

But at its core is a far more simple and relentless message: It may be empty and cold and inaccessible, but it's got a red-and-white flag on it.

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