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Harper in the Arctic -- the End of Ice Tour?

August 28, 2012

3-minute read

News that multi-year Arctic sea ice was melting towards a record low did not put a dent in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s annual northern road show last week.

So far in August, the Arctic has lost about 75,000 square kilometres of ice every day. To put this into perspective, the sea ice area being lost each 24 hours is more than the size of New Brunswick (73,000 km2).

The news about melting sea ice was everywhere last week, although it was barely reflected in the talking points the Prime Minister used on his territorial tour. Stephen Harper moved from location to location with a briefcase full of “announceables,” including the new Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS), which is to be completed in 2017.

While “environmental stewardship and climate change” were included on the list of priorities for the research station that Harper announced for Cambridge Bay, they came behind “resource development” and “exercising sovereignty.”

In announcing CHARS, Harper defended the government’s record against charges that it has effectively neutered scientific research, lest it slow the drive for resource development.

“Look, obviously ongoing climatic changes are something we watch carefully - it's one of the reasons for the government's concern about the growth of future shipping in that area," Harper said.

As he has on past Arctic sojourns, the Prime Minister viewed a military exercise staged near Churchill, Manitoba, saying, “it has become Canada’s destiny to protect a large portion of our planet’s North. Canada has been a consistent champion of the Arctic as a zone of responsible development, environmental protection and international peace.”

His comments echo previous statements that narrowly define Arctic security in military terms. Military security has played a major role in how the Arctic is seen since the dawn of the Cold War. In the early 1980s, the Trudeau government approved testing of Cruise missiles in the Arctic, a move which was greeted with protests across the country. Since that time, a more sophisticated understanding of Arctic security has evolved -- one which includes human health and well being and incorporates ecological, social and cultural threats in its analysis.

In a paper published a few years ago at Dalhousie University called Adrift: Complex Threats to Human Security in the Arctic, Wilfred Greaves used a definition from the 2003 report of the Commission on Human Security:

 human security means protecting fundamental freedoms – freedoms that are the essence of life. It means protecting people from critical (severe) and pervasive (widespread) threats and situations… It means creating political, social, environmental, economic, military and cultural systems that together give people the building blocks of survival, livelihood, and dignity. 

 Climate change as a threat to human security in the Arctic is something Inuit have been talking about for at least a decade. In early 2002, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, then the head of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (Canada) spoke at a conference on climate change and Arctic security in Ottawa. Watt-Cloutier -- who would later be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her work to raise awareness about the global effects of Arctic climate change -- spoke about human security and the cultural survival of her people:

 Inuit have a well-earned reputation for resilience and adaptability. But resilience has limits. Each year it seems hunters are waiting longer and longer for the ice to come. Some Inuit are now asking whether the long-term impacts of climate change will fatally erode our hunting way of life. If so, what does the future hold for my people?

A decade later, Inuit political leaders, while recognizing the opportunities that come with increased access to resources, continue to express concern about climate change.

Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak says the region needs economic investment and called the  Cambridge Bay research station “a step forward.” However, while the “world is looking at Nunavut” she said there are concerns about the lack of infrastructure. And there are worries about climate change, the effects of which she said are felt firsthand in many communities that have lost hunters who have fallen through the thinning sea ice.

As Harper’s trip neared its end, Premier Aariak said climate change is a prime issue for Northerners. Greenhouse gas emissions come from outside the Arctic, she said, but are having a direct impact on the people of the region and their traditional way of life.

“We need to have a voice in ... decisions as things change in the Arctic,” she said. “We need to have the strategy to address it and adapt to the changes.”

It’s not just Inuit communities that are feeling the effects. Indigenous Peoples around the Arctic have been talking for years about the rapid change their ecosystems are undergoing. This kind of change is unprecedented and matters to all of us because what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.

Canadian governments -- Liberal and Conservative -- have done little to help northerners adapt to climate change. Perhaps it’s time to widen the official definition of “Arctic security” to one that includes not only the interest and future of northerners, but of all Canadians. Then maybe we can have a serious discussion about cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

John Crump is a CCPA research associate and writes on Arctic and global environmental issues.

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