The prime minister held a minority government up until Monday night and has been steadily implementing his party’s Northern Strategy since he was first elected in 2006. The results of the most recent Canadian election give him more power than ever before to pass legislation and pursue plans to to promote mining, offshore drilling and other development projects in Canada’s North.
The election results may also affect Canada’s international commitments, as former Conservative Member of Parliament and Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon was voted out of his riding. Cannon played a large role in collaborating with Russian authorities in mapping undersea Arctic borders. At this point, it’s unclear who the Conservative government will appoint to take his place.
Leading up to Monday’s election, the Conservative party’s campaign platform outlined a four-point strategy for Northern governance: - strengthening Canada’s Arctic Sovereignty; - protecting the Northern environment; - promoting economic and social development; and - giving Northerners more control over their own affairs.
Canada’s environmentally-focused New Democratic Party experienced unprecedented support in the election and is likely to use its newly acquired strength in Canadian parliament to influence legislation related to offshore oil drilling and other Northern environmental issues. Last year, NDP leader Jack Layton called on Prime Minister Harper to address the issue of potential offshore oil spills in the Arctic if oil companies are given the green light to drill in the Beaufort Sea.
Support for the Liberal Party of Canada dropped to historic lows on Tuesday’s election, leaving the party with little means to achieve its pledge to block all new oil exploration and leasing activity in Canada’s North. The Conservative position of openness toward offshore oil drilling is likely to go ahead, despite criticism from opposition parties.
Prime Minister Harper has expressed strong support for offshore drilling in the Arctic, saying safety measures developed by Canada’s National Energy Board, an independent regulator with the legal power to approve drilling operations, will effectively prevent oil spills.
Canada’s Green Party, which is dedicated to environmental protection, was awarded its first-ever seat in the Canadian House of Commons. With only one seat, this historic victory for the party does not add much real power to its agenda, but may indicate Canadians’ growing concern for the environment.
The heightened concern, however, may do little to block Chevron and BP PLC, both of which have conducted explorations and have applied to begin drilling in the near future.
Chevron’s plans are pending the results of a review of current offshore drilling safety standards by the National Energy Board, and BP PLC, which holds exploration licenses in the Beaufort Sea, is expected to begin operations in 2014.
The NEB will hold meetings with Northern communities this month as part of the review to develop recommendations for safety standards that oil companies must meet in order to drill in the Arctic.
Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, the federal ministry that oversees Aboriginal affairs, will consult the recommendations as it develops official policies for offshore drilling in the Arctic.
In addition to promoting offshore oil drilling, the Conservative government is dedicated to promoting Canadian sovereignty in the North.
The prime minister has plans to step up the Canadian military presence in the North by expanding the number of Arctic Rangers stationed in the the northern territories. Rangers are part-time reservists who provide local data to the Canadian Forces and conduct surveillance patrols. They would be largely responsible for search and rescue efforts in the Canadian Arctic, for which Canada is expected to sign an international treaty at the 7th Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting this month.
There are currently 4,100 Rangers and the Conservative government plans to add 900 more. The Canadian army has already begun a project to better equip the Rangers with better weapons, transportation and uniforms at a cost of CAD$45 million. These provisions are expected to enhance the Rangers’ search and rescue capabilities.
The majority Conservative government also has plans to build a new new year-round, all-weather highway that will make the North more accessible and invite industrial development in the region. The Conservatives’ campaign platform states the highway will increase Canada’s presence in the North, which is critical for the country to assert sovereignty in the area. Additionally, the Conservative government has committed to purchasing new Arctic patrol ships and a polar class icebreaker and promised to increase employment and education levels in the North.
In the past, the Liberal party criticized Harper’s plans in the North for being too militaristic and overlooking major social and economic problems in Canada’s Arctic communities. The Liberals have also accused the Conservative party of failing to fulfil its commitment to international pan-Arctic search and rescue cooperation treaties, pointing out that none of Canada’s search and rescue aircraft are stationed north of 60 degrees and that the dated fleet is in need of upgrades.
To date, the Conservatives have established a new economic development agency called CanNor to increase economic activity in the North, begun work on the new High Arctic Research Station, and invested in affordable housing and skills training.
The new Conservative budget offers no additional funding for the High Arctic Research Station, a future hub for scientific research in the region. Instead, it reiterates past funding and the fact that the station’s mission will reinforce the Conservative government’s priority to strengthen its presence in the North.