Commentary: A Canadian motto embracing the North?

“The government’s Northern Strategy has the real potential to unite us all”



Now that the Conservative government has unveiled its Northern Strategy, Prime Minister Stephen Harper needs to turn his mind towards convincing Canadians that a long-term investment in the Arctic is key to our future as a nation.

A symbolic, popular, pan-Canadian, inclusive (not one of the prime minister’s greatest strengths) and above all else, long overdue change would be to update our national motto.

Harper could enhance his nation-builder credentials by personally taking up the cause of changing our national motto to truly embrace Canada’s reality as a northern nation. Derived from Psalm 72:8, “A mari usque ad mare,” and seized by Canada’s Fathers of Confederation in the 1860s, our current motto is an anachronism.

After 142 years of existence, our motto — which was made official in the 1920s — should now be changed, at long last, to proudly trumpet a land “from sea to sea to sea.”

In Latin it would then read “Mare usque ad mare ad mare.”

Since 1880, when Canada inherited the Arctic Archipelago from the British, we have been an Arctic nation in fact, but not name. When the issue was raised in the Commons in 2006, national polls showed very strong support for the idea.

Since he came to office in 2006 Harper has shown very real signs of understanding that the Canadian North is key to both our national imagination and future. He often summons the memory of the late John Diefenbaker’s and Dief’s famed Northern Vision in a 21st century attempt to get Canadians to “Follow Stephen.”

This should be applauded by all Canadians, regardless of party. But it is just the first step. The unveiling of his government’s long-promised Northern Strategy, rather than simply falling back on the pithy and problematic “use it or lose it” refrain, is the second essential step forward.

Rather than simply announcing piece-meal investments in Arctic defence, the Conservatives have articulated an integrated northern vision which, presumably, they will sell to Canadians as we head towards an election.

While largely a reiteration of previous government announcements, Canada’s Northern Strategy: Our North, Our Heritage, Our Future elaborates on the government’s four main pillars of sovereignty, economic and social development, environmental protection, and governance.

Its most refreshing element is the explicit reinstating of circumpolar cooperation and diplomacy as a national priority, which follows up on Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon’s important speech in Whitehorse last March and addresses opposition critiques that his military-focused Arctic agenda was misguided.

With this new tone, Harper seems to have improved upon one of his greatest weaknesses — as demonstrated last fall with his ill-fated attack on the opposition parties’ funding base — and used the Arctic file to demonstrate he is actually willing to work with the opposition parties in a non-partisan manner to improve Canada itself.

The emphasis on northern engagement and assurances that Northerners will be the primary beneficiaries of the government’s strategy will also appeal to those Canadians with the greatest stake in the region: the people who live there.

By seizing the Arctic agenda, Harper has that rare opportunity for a prime minister to invest Canadians with a sense of national purpose. Managing the economy will not earn him the title of nation-builder; nor will beefing up the Canadian Forces in the North and in Arctic waters through simple knee-jerk reactions to activities there by other nations.

But the building of the national will to seize our northern destiny will contribute to a stronger, more prosperous Canada and a stable and constructive circumpolar world in which Canada’s role is crucial. Harper would benefit politically — and later historically — in the process.

Very few southern Canadians really embrace the North beyond mythology. We revere the Arctic as a touchtone of our distinctiveness — after all, the inukshuk is the symbol for the 2010 Canadian-hosted Olympics — but we have been unwilling to make it a national priority.

The government’s Northern Strategy has the real potential to unite us all.

To start this new national mission and nation-building exercise, the 22nd prime minister should officially change our motto. So when we next celebrate Canada Day our nation will finally — with our new motto in effect and proudly displayed – exist from “sea to sea to sea.”

Over to you, Prime Minister.

P. Whitney Lackenbauer is Associate Professor of modern Canadian history and department chair at St. Jerome’s University at the University of Waterloo. He is one of the Canadian International Council’s Inaugural Fellows.

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