Canadian visit welcomed, but Northern issues low on agenda

Obama unlikely to move soon on Arctic policy


Canadians are delighted at the prospect of a looming official state visit by U.S. President Barack Obama, but those hoping that he will move quickly on Arctic policy are likely to be disappointed.

Obama was sworn in as America's 44th president this past Tuesday, taking power in a country with a massive list of problems and an unprecedented weight of hope and expectation.

The new president is expected to fix an ailing economy, guide his country through two wars, and, according to NASA scientist James Hansen, the new president has only "four years left" to save the world from the disastrous consequences of climate change.

And there's that trip to Canada to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper that Obama plans to make as his first state visit.

So don't be surprised if Arctic policy comes in low on Obama's to-do list, says Franklyn Griffiths, professor emeritus of political science and George Ignatieff chair of peace and conflict studies at the University of Toronto.

"I think there are other things [Obama] has got to do," Griffiths said. "And if Harper and Obama are talking my guess is Arctic sovereignty, Northwest Passage and Arctic governance are not going to come first."

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Griffiths does think that any impact for the Arctic from the Obama administration would come through action on climate change, which the new president has promised.

But the coming of a new administration in Washington didn't prevent some angst in Canadian circles though, after the Jan. 9 release of the United States' new Arctic policy directive, signed by outgoing president George W. Bush.

The document reiterates the longstanding U.S. position that the Northwest Passage is an international strait.

And the document views the Arctic as a place where the U.S needs freedom of action to protect its national security.

"Human activity in the Arctic region is increasing and is projected to increase further in coming years," the directive states. "This requires the United States to assert a more active and influential national presence to protect its Arctic interests and to project sea power throughout the region."

But Bush's directive also commits the U.S. to cooperating with other Arctic countries to protect endangered species and prevent pollution. And it also calls on the Senate to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

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Still, the document prompted howls of protest from some Canadian observers. Northwest Territories premier Floyd Roland fired off a press release saying Canada needs to take "immediate action" to "assert Canadian sovereignty over Arctic lands and resources."

"This new presidential directive is the latest signal that other nations have set their eyes on the North," Roland said, calling on Ottawa to spend money on Northern infrastructure.

And the Globe and Mail quoted Rob Huebert, an Arctic policy expert with the University of Calgary, as saying the policy directive threw "a grenade into Canada-U.S. relations."

But, branding Huebert a "purveyor of polar peril," Griffiths said the document offers little in the way of change in the U.S. position, particularly when it comes to the status of the Northwest Passage.

The United States maintains it's an international strait, while Canada, fearful of a maritime free-for-all should climate change open the passage to shipping, claims it's an internal waterway.

"There's nothing new about the Northwest Passage in it," Griffiths said. "We and the U.S. have our different views and the U.S. has simply reaffirmed its longstanding view. Some people get hyper about that, but to me Arctic countries have got an agreement to disagree and we can live with that."

Indeed, he said U.S.-Canada relations are generally strong in the Arctic, particularly between the coast guards and scientific communities of both countries. Instead of fretting about sovereignty, Griffiths has written that Canada should pay attention to the health and social welfare of the people who live in the Arctic.

That's not to say Griffiths thinks the new U.S. directive is flawless. The American position on the Arctic Council calls for the organization to remain as essentially an advisory body on environmental protection and sustainable development, without any powers of regulation.

Griffiths said the Arctic Council, which is comprised of Canada, the U.S., Russia, Iceland, Denmark and the three Scandinavian countries, ought to grow into an international organization with regulatory powers. The U.S. policy appears to favour "pickup games" of negotiations on new regulations one issue at a time.

"Let us try to find a place where all of these issues can, as time goes on, be considered in their interconnections, rather than go one by one," he said. "In my view, it's the Arctic Council that is the place for this kind of thing."

The other benefit of the Arctic Council is that indigenous groups are formally included in all discussions as so-called permanent participants.

In fact, Griffiths said Canada should go so far as creating its own Marine Council, a forgotten provision of the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement, which would serve as a domestic version of the Arctic Council.

Such a body would help the southerners who dominate Canada's Arctic policy at the federal level better understand the realities of life North of 60.

"I think we down south need to be more knowledgeable and should be talking more to Northerners," Griffiths said. "Northerners, for their part, should be telling us more of their own view rather than seeing how they can fit into our way of thinking, which is sovereignty talk."

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