The 2021 Canadian Federal Election and the Arctic

On August 15, 2021, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid a visit to the new Governor-General Mary Simon, Queen Elizabeth II’s representative in Canada, asking to dissolve parliament and call an election two years ahead of schedule. Trudeau asserts that Canadians must vote on a vision for the country’s recovery after the turbulence of the COVID-19 pandemic and emergency measures implemented by his minority government. Trudeau and his Liberal Party of Canada are attempting to emerge from this election with a majority government that they were unable to attain two years ago, in 2019. Since then, the Trudeau Liberals have been governing with the support of the other parties in parliament, such as the New Democrat Party, the Conservative Party of Canada, the Bloc Quebecois and the Green Party.

The Canadian Arctic is typically not a major issue in federal election campaigns. In the 2019 federal election, only one candidate for Prime Minister (out of five) visited the Arctic, with Arctic issues only mentioned twice in nationally televised debates. Despite the Canadian Arctic’s absence from the previous federal election, there is reason to believe that the Arctic will play a greater role in the 2021 campaign. The Canadian Arctic is important to Canada’s national identity as “The Great White North” and Canadian’s identity as Northerners. The Canadian Arctic represents 40% of Canada’s total landmass and is inhabited by some 150,000 people, over half of whom are indigenous peoples. Canada’s Arctic population is not highly urbanized and pales in number to other Arctic states—Russia’s largest Arctic city, Murmansk, has at least double the population of the entire Canadian Arctic. Despite this fact, Canadians are likely to pay greater attention to the region as voters’ priorities shift. Ipsos polling shows that COVID-19 is no longer the most prominent issue for Canadian voters and that issues such as climate change, healthcare, cost of living, as well as indigenous issues, will outweigh the pandemic in voters’ minds.

The Canadian Arctic is an essential component of any national strategy regarding climate change as the Canadian Arctic experiences the effects of climate change far more acutely than the other parts of the country. Increased accessibility to natural resources as a result of climate change will also be a challenge for any future federal government seeking to balance economic development with mitigating the impact of climate change. Indigenous issues will also draw the North into greater focus following a series of discoveries at Canada’s former residential schools where the unmarked graves of children were unearthed earlier this year. Northern communities, in particular Indigenous northern communities, live far below the standard of living enjoyed by most Canadians. Just under 70% of Inuit households in Nunavut are food insecure, and life expectancy for Inuit Canadians is 72.4 years whereas Canada’s non-Indigenous population stands at 82.9 years. Besides, infrastructure in the North is well below the national standard, with many communities having no access to reliable drinking water or electricity grids. Security concerns in the Canadian Arctic are also becoming more prevalent in the Canadian political discourse. In large part, due to the impact of climate change and geostrategic concerns about Russian and Chinese activities in the Arctic region, Canada has been forced to re-evaluate its limited military and security presence in the Canadian Arctic.

What will the 2021 Canadian federal election mean for the Canadian Arctic? How do Canada’s main parties seek to approach the Arctic and how will the results of this election impact Arctic stakeholders at home and abroad? This article will evaluate Canada’s three largest parties and their party platforms and commitments for the Canadian Arctic. Canada’s smaller parties, namely the Green Party of Canada, The Bloc-Quebecois and the People’s Party of Canada, will not be considered for this article. The Green Party has yet to release any information on its Arctic platform at the time of writing, the Bloc-Quebecois is a regional party dedicated to Quebec nationalism, and the People’s Party of Canada does not have any presence in the Canadian Parliament.

Liberal Party of Canada

The Liberal Party of Canada has been in government since Justin Trudeau won the 2015 federal election, defeating the incumbent Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Back in 2015, the Liberal’s sought to differentiate themselves from Harper’s approach to the Canadian Arctic which was largely predicated on security issues and resource extraction development. The Trudeau government intended to focus less on military and security issues—instead, Trudeau made climate change mitigation, indigenous rights, diplomacy and cooperation hallmarks of his party’s Arctic policy. This approach culminated in the 2019 Arctic and Northern Policy Framework Through 2030, a policy document similar to the Russian Strategy for Developing the Russian Arctic Zone and Ensuring National Security through 2035. Both documents identify government priorities and strategies for achieving socio-economic development in the Arctic region and outline government approaches to national security concerns.

In both Russian and Canadian cases, these policy documents are intended to provide a long-term strategic outlook to stimulate investment and streamline government spending into priority areas. The Liberal government has outlined 8 priority areas for the Arctic, some of which are more domestically-oriented while others point to Canada’s geopolitical role as an Arctic state. In the case of domestically-oriented goals, the government aims to improve the resiliency of Northern communities, to strengthen infrastructure and close the infrastructure gap that persists between Arctic Canada and other more developed areas of the country, to create sustainable and inclusive regional economies, knowledge- and understanding-guided decision-making, protecting and promoting the health of Northern and Arctic ecosystems as well as self-determination and reconciliation with indigenous and non-indigenous communities. In terms of geopolitics, the government states it will actively promote maintaining rules-based international order in the Arctic to address new challenges and opportunities and ensure that Canadians in the Arctic are well-defended. The government’s Northern Policy Framework also makes note of territorial sovereignty and of maintaining Canada’s sovereignty over the entire Canadian Arctic region—namely, protecting Canada’s claims over the Northwest Passage and its territorial shelf claims currently under review by the UN.

The Liberal government’s Northern Policy Framework differentiates itself from the previous Conservative government’s approach to the Arctic through its focus on reconciliation with indigenous communities and fostering “inclusive economies”. In terms of infrastructure development, the government has made several large-scale investments, including investing $71.1 million for Nunavut transportation projects, expanding hydroelectric projects in the Northwest Territories and committing to providing high-speed Internet connection for remote communities—something seen as an essential component to growing business and improving the quality of life for those living in the Arctic region. In addition to supporting infrastructure development, the Liberal government has also continued to support the resource extraction industry in the Arctic region, a critical source of jobs and economic growth. The Northern Policy Framework outlines commitments to support the mining industry and enforce standards of responsible mining in the region. On the campaign trail, the Liberals have also sought to bolster support for the minerals industry by pledging to create a “Critical Battery Minerals Centre of Excellence” at a cost of $9.6 million and providing $36.8 million dollars for research and development of battery mineral refining and processing.

The Liberal government has also invested or committed to increasing the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and Canadian Ranger’s presence in the Arctic region for security purposes. Existing commitments within the Northern Policy Framework include increasing the presence of the CAF, the Canadian Rangers and the Canadian Coast Guard to improve search and rescue capabilities in the Arctic region and defend Canada’s national interests and those of its citizens in the region. In addition to these commitments, the Liberal Party has also pledged to work with the United States to modernize and expand NORAD, a Cold War-era system of detection and defense to protect North America from aerospace and maritime threats. Recently, the Liberal Party has also committed to the construction of two new Arctic-class icebreakers, one to be built in British Columbia and the other in Quebec, which can be interpreted both as a job-boosting initiative in two of Canada’s most important electoral battlegrounds and as satiating Canada’s lack of heavy icebreaker capabilities (Canada’s only heavy icebreaker, the CCGS Louis-St. Laurent, is 52 years old).

The Northern Policy Framework and the current Liberal Party campaign commitments are largely focused on the socio-economic development of indigenous and remote communities in the Arctic region. Existing commitments include $190 million for food processing units, multi-use buildings and harbors to reduce food insecurity while revamping the “Nutrition North” program championed by the previous Conservative government. The government has also supported greater indigenous involvement in multilateral institutions, such as the Arctic Council, and funding the Sustainable Development Working Group within the Arctic Council framework. In the early stages of the federal election campaign, the Liberal Party has attempted to emphasize its commitment to reconciliation with indigenous peoples, which extends to its Arctic messaging. In particular, the Liberals have pledged to supply $125.2 million over four years to mitigate the impact of climate change and extreme weather on indigenous communities in the North and support travel costs of Northerners without employer benefits, totaling a cost of $125 million over four years.

Conservative Party of Canada (CPC)

The Conservative Party of Canada’s new leader and a candidate for Prime Minister, Erin O’Toole, has been a vocal and consistent supporter of Arctic issues in parliament for many years. O’Toole’s position on Arctic issues is more focused on security and infrastructure development when compared to the Northern Policy Framework and the Liberal Party’s campaign commitments. This echoes the approach of the former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper who also ritualistically attended Operation Nanook, Canada’s annual Arctic military exercises, stressing the need to defend Canadian sovereignty in the region. The Conservative Party platform included several references to the Arctic region, including an entire section of the document devoted to defending the Canadian Arctic.

The Conservative Party Platform is more detailed than the Northern Policy Framework in terms of specific priorities in the Arctic region for security and critical infrastructure. The platform lists increasing the size and mandate of the Canadian Rangers and Canadian Armed Forces in the Arctic region, refurbishing Royal Canadian Air Force bases in the Arctic for dual citizen and military use, complete the Nanisivik Naval Facility on Baffin Island in Nunavut and establish a new Arctic naval base at Churchill, Manitoba, to ensure year-round access to the Arctic region by the Royal Canadian Navy. The Conservative Party has also signaled its intent to deploy autonomous vehicles for surveillance, detection and deterrence in the sea and air to protect Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic region. The CPC will also expand the RadarSat constellation, a series of low-orbit satellites for telecommunications and defense purposes, having also committed to modernizing and expanding NORAD. The Conservative Party has chosen to focus a large part of its Arctic messaging on threat perceptions from China and Russia. In the Northern Policy Framework, the Liberal government alludes to security challenges emerging in the region but does not single out any individual actor. In the CPC platform, China and Russia are mentioned explicitly as threats to Canadian sovereignty. In its commitment to procuring two armed, heavy icebreakers for the Royal Canadian Navy, the document states the icebreakers will “contribute to our efforts to own our north in the face of increased Russian and Chinese Arctic activity” and suggests establishing a “NATO Centre of Excellence for Arctic Defense” in Canada. Erin O’Toole’s personal statements regarding Arctic sovereignty far outpace statements made by any other party leader as he describes himself as “the most consistent voice on northern issues as an MP”. He also notes that “the biggest study we’ve had in 25 years on northern sovereignty issues was developed by me at the Foreign Affairs Committee,” referring to the report entitled Nation-Building at Home, Vigilance Beyond: Preparing for the Coming Decades in the Arctic and published in March 2019.

The Conservative Party platform also provided ample information regarding infrastructure development in the region. They support the construction of a 230-km all-weather road linking Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, expanding road access near the Northwest Territories diamond mines currently only accessible by ice roads. They also pledged to support the Kivalliq Hydro-Fibre Line to deliver both renewable energy and broadband Internet to remote communities in the Canadian Arctic. The CPC has also stated its intent to pursue an “Arctic Gateway policy across the Canadian North,” which is intended to link Canada’s North to international markets despite the challenges associated with infrastructure development in the Arctic. It is interesting to note that in the section of the CPC’s platform on Arctic infrastructure development, China and Russia are also mentioned. The document states that “Russia has refurbished and built over 30 Arctic bases, 14 operational airfields, 16 deep-water ports, and over 50 new military icebreakers. The Chinese government has also increased interest in the Arctic.”

The Conservative Party platform is incredibly detailed in its approach to infrastructure development and sovereignty issues in the Arctic but lacks the depth of the Northern Policy Framework or Liberal/NDP campaign commitments in terms of indigenous issues. The CPC commits to supporting the Nutrition North Program, partnering with Indigenous communities on infrastructure development, and supporting reconciliation efforts more broadly. The most unique Conservative Party platform initiative on indigenous issues in the Arctic is the establishment of the “Canadian Indigenous Opportunities Corporation” with an “initial $5 billion in capital” that would support indigenous communities and organizations seeking to purchase equity stakes in major projects. The campaign promise to establish the Canadian Indigenous Opportunities Corporation is qualified by changing the impact assessment process for mining processes so that communities may not cause “unnecessary delays in providing approvals”.

New Democrat Party (NDP)

The New Democrat Party’s approach to the Arctic region is focused primarily on improving the socio-economic standing of the Arctic region and raising the quality of life for Northern communities. The NDP platform commitments pertaining to the Arctic region are also heavily centered around creating inclusive and sustainable local economies in consultation with Indigenous communities. The NDP did not make explicit mention of security issues in the party platform but did collaborate with the Liberal government in creating the Northern Policy Framework which does make note of protecting Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic region and ensuring the security of Canadian citizens in the area.

The New Democrat’s strategy for supporting northern development includes halting out-population flow through improvements to healthcare, the implementation of tax credits, education programs and bridging the infrastructure gap that exists between the Arctic and Canada’s other more developed regions. Specifically, the New Democrats seek to reduce the infrastructure gap through the creation of a Northern Infrastructure Fund designed to fast-track essential projects, such as broadband Internet access and roads in remote communities. The New Democrats also seek to spur development in the Arctic region by reducing the reliance on diesel-powered generators in remote communities and supporting the construction of new green energy capabilities to reduce energy insecurity in collaboration with local and indigenous partners.

The New Democrat platform consistently references improving the quality of life and fostering a more equitable partnership with indigenous communities in the North. The NDP supports reforming the Nutrition North program and reorienting the program from one that provides subsidies to companies providing food to remote communities to a social program “that benefits communities in the North directly”. Besides, the Party’s platform mentions the prospect of “shared governance” within the Inuit-Crown Partnership Committee and the adoption of an Inuit Nunangat policy in partnership with the Inuit leadership to promote economic and social self-reliance within indigenous communities. The NDP has also committed to ensuring that federal election ballots will become more inclusive for Northern Indigenous communities, particularly through the addition of indigenous languages on election ballots beyond 2021. If elected, the NDP will also create a National Crisis Strategy to help vulnerable communities reduce the risks associated with climate change and extreme weather events, including long-term funding for disaster mitigation and “climate-resilient infrastructure”. The New Democrat platform and statements made on the campaign trail at this point are notably absent of specific funding targets and commitments when compared to the more exact figures provided by the Liberal Party and Conservative Party.

Domestic and International Impact

Although the Canadian Arctic is unlikely to be a prominent ballot box issue for voters in the 2021 federal election, there are potential ramifications for domestic and international Arctic stakeholders depending on which party (or parties) forms the next government in Ottawa. Domestically, all three parties have committed to reducing the infrastructure gap that exists between the Canadian Arctic and Canada’s more developed regions. The strategy to achieve this goal is also broadly similar between the three largest parties, including improving access to broadband Internet for remote communities, investing in the construction of roads and other critical infrastructure, and improving the resilience of remote communities. All three parties have committed to reducing food insecurity in the Arctic through continued support for the Nutrition North program or through reforming the program as in the case of the NDP. The Liberal Party and the New Democrats have expressed support for improving the quality and access to healthcare in the Arctic region, although the Liberal Party is the only party to provide specific funding commitments to achieve this goal. The Liberal Party and the Conservative Party have demonstrated a much greater commitment to large-scale infrastructure projects intended to facilitate increased trade and resource extraction in the Arctic region. Both parties have committed significant funds to the development of deep-water ports, roads, and incentives for the resource extraction industry that currently drives Northern economies. The New Democrat platform did not include references to specific infrastructure projects beyond roads, green energy development and broadband Internet access in the Arctic or to the resource extraction industry. The Liberal Party and New Democrats both included direct references to improving collaboration between the federal government and Indigenous communities in the Arctic region. All three parties committed to investing in indigenous communities in the North, although the Conservative Party platform’s promise was qualified by the reform of impact assessment processes for mining and other resource extraction projects.

The 2021 Canadian federal election is unlikely to have a significant impact on international stakeholders. The Conservative Party platform and Erin O’Toole’s personal statements on the Canadian Arctic are the most robust of the three parties. The CPC made explicit mention of threats to Canadian sovereignty in the region, namely Russia and China, and put forward distinct policy proposals and funding targets to augment the Canadian military’s presence in the North. Both the Liberal Party and Conservative Party committed to the construction of two new Arctic-class icebreakers and to modernizing and expanding NORAD in conjunction with U.S. partners. The Conservative’s rhetoric surrounding Russia and China likely indicates that, if elected, the CPC will take a harder stance on both actors than is currently demonstrated by the Liberal government. The Liberal government did outline a commitment to continued dialogue with Arctic actors through multilateral institutions, such as the Arctic Council, and enhancing the Arctic Council’s mandate to some degree, although they did not signal any willingness to expand the Council’s mandate to include security issues.

It is also important to note that taking a harder stance against China is a widely bipartisan issue in Canada that enjoys widespread public support in the wake of diplomatic disputes over Huawei official Meng Wanzhou and two Canadians detained in China.

Irrespective of who forms the next federal government in Ottawa, it is likely that national security reviews of Chinese investments in the Arctic region will continue similar to a deal in 2020 that was blocked by Ottawa due to national security concerns. The New Democrat Party platform did not go into great detail regarding foreign policy priorities, and foreign policy or security issues related to the Arctic region were not mentioned. As Gregor Sharp notes in his paper on the Canadian Arctic following the 2015 federal election, the parties rhetorically present different proposals for the Arctic region but there is a great deal of continuity on the Arctic policy despite changing dynamics in parliament. Sharp attributes this lack of significant change to Canada’s lack of clout on Arctic issues. Although Canada is the second-largest Arctic nation, it lacks the population density, military power, or economic influence of some other Arctic states, such as the U.S. and Russia. Canada must work in concert with Arctic allies and like-minded partners through multilateral institutions, such as the UN and the Arctic Council, to achieve government priorities in the Arctic region. Canada must also continue to maintain dialogue with other Arctic states, such as Russia, to achieve common goals such as continued national control over the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route or avoid conflict over continental shelf limits in the region.

From our partner RIAC

Carter Boone
Carter Boone
BA in History, Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, MA Student at the University of Helsinki