WikiLeaks: U.S. dismisses Harper's Arctic talk

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.
A new WikiLeaks cable suggests the U.S. government believes Prime Minister Stephen Harper talks tough about Canadian Arctic sovereignty for political gain. (Sean Kilpatrick/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."