Prime Minister Stephen Harper drives an ATV at the Tuktoyaktuk airport while visiting Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories on the fourth day of his five-day northern tour to Canada's Arctic on Thursday Aug. 26, 2010. A new Wikileaks cable suggests the U.S. government views Stephen Harper's talk about Canadian Arctic sovereignty as little more than empty chest-thumping designed to win votes. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Andy Blatchford and Bob Weber, The Canadian Press
A new WikiLeaks cable suggests the U.S. government views Stephen Harper's talk about Canadian Arctic sovereignty as little more than empty chest-thumping designed to win votes.
In a diplomatic cable posted this week by the online whistleblower, the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa says the Tories have made successful political use of promises to beef up Canada's presence in the Arctic.
But it says the Harper government has done only scant implementation on pledges like increasing surveillance over the Northwest Passage.
"Conservatives make concern for 'The North' part of their political brand . . . and it works," says the note, titled Canada's Conservative Government and its Arctic Focus.
"The message seemed to resonate with the electorate; the Conservatives formed the new government in 2006."
The January 2010 cable, issued under the signature of U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson, even pokes fun at Harper's statements on the North.
"The persistent high public profile which this government has accorded 'Northern Issues' and the Arctic is, however, unprecedented and reflects the PM's views that 'the North has never been more important to our country' — although one could perhaps paraphrase to state 'the North has never been more important to our Party.' "
The cable says many of these promises — such as the purchase of armed icebreakers and Arctic Ocean sensors — have since been forgotten.
It notes that Harper hammered away at the issue in his first post-election news conference following his election in January 2006, before he had even been sworn in. Harper chided the U.S. government over its longstanding view that the Northwest Passage was international water.
"Once elected, Harper hit the ground running with frosty rhetoric," it says.
"Harper (who was still only Prime Minister - designate) used his first post-election press conference to respond to the United States Ambassador's restatement the prior day of the longstanding U.S. position on the Northwest passage."
The cable says Harper trotted out the subject once again during the 2008 election campaign.
But between elections, the note questions whether Harper's public stance on the North corresponds with his behaviour in private.
It says Harper did not even mention the Arctic during January 2010 meetings with U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson, which lasted several hours.
"That the PM's public stance on the Arctic may not reflect his private, perhaps more pragmatic, priorities, however, was evident in the fact that during several hours together with Ambassador Jacobson on January 7 and 8, which featured wide-ranging conversations, the PM did not once mention the Arctic."
Since coming to power, the Conservatives have frequently tried to draw attention to Canada's military presence in the North.
Harper has made annual trips to the region since becoming prime minister — even appearing in carefully orchestrated photo-ops on ice floes as fighter jets scream overhead during military exercises.
He has also made bold statements about the region, such as: "use it or lose it."
Defence Minister Peter MacKay has enthusiastically engaged in sabre-rattling with Moscow over flights by Russian bombers in the region. Canada has scrambled military jets to the Arctic several times to make sure the Russians don't enter Canadian airspace.
But despite the tough talk, the Tories have accomplished few of the promised goals, including an the construction of an Arctic naval station (originally scheduled to open in 2012) and the purchase of fixed-wing search and rescue planes.
A Harper spokesman brushed off criticism that Ottawa hasn't followed through on some of its pledges for the North, insisting the government has realized some and still has plans to move ahead with the others.
"We're confident about our record and we've backed our talk with action," Andrew MacDougall said Thursday.
"Some of them will take some time, but the commitment to them remains firm. Obviously, there are a lot of challenges operating in the North."
He said the Prime Minister's Office can't comment on how others interpret its actions.
Several other diplomatic cables from the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa, focusing on Canada and the Arctic, were posted to WikiLeaks on Thursday.
— One note, dated February 2010, says Ottawa was planning to buy Arctic offshore patrol ships, even though the navy never requested them. The cable called it, "an example of a requirement driven by political rather than military imperatives . . . The Conservatives have nonetheless long found domestic political capital in asserting Canada's 'Arctic Sovereignty.' "
— A January 2010 cable says Harper cautioned NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen that the alliance has no role in the Arctic because "Canada has a good working relationship with Russia with respect to the Arctic" and a NATO presence "could backfire by exacerbating tensions." The cable says Harper also mentioned "there is no likelihood of Arctic states going to war, but that some countries favored a NATO role in the Arctic because it would afford them influence in an area where 'they don't belong.' "
— In September 2008, the embassy urged Washington to postpone the release of its "National Security Presidential Directive/Homeland Security Presidential Directive" until after the October 2008 election because the policy could have impacted the ongoing campaign and negatively affected Canada-U.S. relations.
One expert on Canada's presence in the Far North said the cables show the country needs to do a better job of asserting itself up there.
Michael Byers, professor of international law at the University of British Columbia and author of "Who Owns the Arctic?", said the cables reveal the U.S. discounts much of the Conservative stance on the Arctic.
"They're certainly taking our rhetoric with a large grain of salt," he said.
"It's explaining to non-Arctic experts in the State Department that, when it comes to the Arctic, the prime minister is all hat and no boot."
Byers pointed to a part of the cable in which the writer reveals that Harper had a lengthy, wide-ranging conversation with the U.S. ambassador and never once mentioned the Arctic.
He said that U.S. attitude is likely to make it much tougher for Canada to negotiate favourable deals on issues such as the status of the Northwest Passage and the maritime border in the Beaufort Sea.
"The United States will not alter its long-standing position on the Northwest Passage unless it is convinced that Canada will step up and provide enforcement capabilities there," said Byers.
"If we want our legal position to prevail, we have to be convincing with respect to having the assets and the political will to use them to create a secure northern coast."
However, Rob Huebert of the University of Calgary's Centre for Strategic Studies said the cable contains inaccuracies.
It misinterprets the roots of the conflict with Denmark over Hans Island and doesn't point out where real money is being spent in the Arctic, such as Arctic-capable transport planes and Chinook helicopters.
"It's a bit of a self-serving American document that isn't even factually correct," he said.
But that doesn't help Canadian diplomats, he said.
"It creates the challenge for Canadian policy-makers that not only do they have to know what the realities of the circumstances are, they also have to try somehow to understand the perceptions of the Americans, which may not necessarily follow from logic," said Huebert.
For the original text, see: U.S. sees Harper talk about Arctic sovereignty as empty politics