Canada’s economic and strategic exit from post-pandemic depression will not turn on the eventual reopening of the American border. Instead, it will require a great Canadian push to master and mould our northern border, placing Canada at the very centre of an international market of two billion people — six times as large as the American market alone.
In a previous article for Policy Options, I explained that Canada has four relevant borders in this century. I call these borders “ACRE” — America to the south, China to the west, Russia to the north (across our Arctic) and Europe to the east, with the China (C) and Russia (R) borders largely foreign to our national strategic imagination.
Canada will live or die by this four-point strategic game, which also results in 15 different combinations of pressures and pulls across our geography, political and information space — all of which, if not properly understood and parried, could crush or collapse our country over time. On the other hand, if we play our strategic cards well, Canada could, as I have argued, emerge as one of this century’s most important powers.
The key elements of Canadian survival and success in this great strategic game come together not at the American border, which remains the unique preoccupation of our decision-making class, but instead at our Arctic border.
Population and a term-setting Canadian mentality
Canada already has in place all the elements of a proper great power, except two: a sufficiently large population and a “term-setting” mindset — one that sets the terms and conditions for Canada’s own strategic life and is able to drive many international debates. Otherwise, we have the second-largest land mass in the world; world-beating reserves and national self-sufficiency in many natural resources; a highly educated population; and significant and long-standing political and legal stability.
At our Arctic or northern border, Canada controls a territory the size of the entire European Union. Yukon is as big as France; NWT as big as France, Germany and Ukraine combined; and Nunavut bigger than Yukon and NWT combined. And yet the population of this entire continent-sized territory is 118,000 — equivalent to the population of Ajax, Ontario, but less than that of Abbotsford, British Columbia, or Trois-Rivières, Quebec.
What’s a country to do, economically and strategically, with this tiny demographic footprint spread across a massive Arctic space that is now opening up (irreversibly) with great velocity due to climate change and the resulting melting of permafrost and sea ice? Answer: very little of world-historical importance. Indeed, Canada can scarcely secure any major national interests — including environmental interests and quality of life objectives for northern and Indigenous Canadians — with such limited in situ capacity.
Canada will need many millions more people nationally, and specifically across our Arctic territory, in the coming decades — full stop. We will have new major cities in the Arctic and the North in this century as a result. Indeed, a Canada of close to 100 million people by the year 2100 could, given our strategic circumstances, have 70 million people living across the southern border, 20 million across the middle swath (the northern halves of most of the provinces) and 10 million in Yukon, NWT and Nunavut.
A first-ever northern immigration strategy will surely be required for Canada to accomplish this pro-northern demographic push and distribution on the supply side. But it is the demand-side vision that is most likely to allow Canada to meet its national interests (including urgent national unity interests), make our population dream again and perhaps even save the post-COVID world.
Whitehorse becomes the Singapore of the North
As I observed in my earlier article, Whitehorse is actually closer to Beijing than is Sydney, Australia. So too are Yellowknife and Inuvik. In other words, Canada is more “in Asia” — through our North — than our Australian brethren. (Inuvik and Iqaluit, for their parts, are both much closer to Murmansk than Manchester is to Moscow, and Yellowknife is closer to Oslo and Stockholm than is Montreal.)
Let us make Whitehorse the major hub city of the Arctic in the coming two decades — by the year 2040. Just as the city today celebrates the launch of the Canadian Arctic’s first university, Yukon University, let us envision the capital of Yukon becoming a Singapore-like economic, transportation and scientific hub connecting Canada, through the superior geographic proximities of our north and northwest, to East Asia, Russia and Eurasia, northern Europe and continental North America: all told, markets of two billion people, or six times as many as the American market alone (but still very much including the American market).
Intense transpolar air transport — passenger and cargo alike — between Whitehorse and Shanghai, Dawson and St. Petersburg, Inuvik and Seoul, Yellowknife and Copenhagen, and Iqaluit and Chicago will build on new-century road, rail and sea infrastructure, including new deepwater ports at King Point, Yukon, and several other coastal nodes along our northern border. Energy, communications and housing infrastructure would also help to connect all of our Arctic territories horizontally as well as vertically to Southern Canada. This would unleash colossal economic and creative activities across the country — starting in Western Canada, which is geographically and psychologically connected to the North and Arctic far more than strategists in Ottawa may realize.
We will require our own Canadian 20- or 30-year plan — yes, I said plan! — and significant political leadership to get this done. The plan might involve an immediate national declaration to the effect that the three northern territories, in all their vastness, constitute a “Special Economic and Environmental Zone” for Canada. This will provide a powerful legal and political aegis for the country to deploy a vast economic, infrastructural, environmental, scientific, demographic, cultural, educational and diplomatic agenda.
The plan would have to be led by the prime minister (indeed, successive prime ministers) and a crack multidisciplinary team inside the Privy Council Office, with ongoing consultation and iteration, through a Council of the Federation now chaired by Ottawa. The council would, for the development and stewardship of this plan, include northern Indigenous governments as full partners from the start — partners that will have a substantial say as decision-makers across their vast traditional and self-governing Arctic territories.
A fairly large web of advisory boards populated by our country’s (including territorial and Indigenous) leading specialists in infrastructure, logistics, engineering, business strategy, Indigenous governance, northern science, the environment, oceanography, fisheries, defence, cybersecurity, transportation, aeronautics, immigration and demographics, trade and health sciences, among other areas, should act in regular support of this evergreen national plan — one that will help our country navigate the biggest mobilization of national energies since the opening of the West in the earliest decades of Confederation.
Toward a Canadian-led Arctic League
Our default Canadian doctrine for reckoning with the small northern population and limited capabilities appears to be to fortify our Arctic. But what if in the future the Americans should decide to fortify unilaterally, on our territory and in our name? A far more cunning and term-setting Canadian play would be to embed all our great-power neighbours and their markets in a multilateral structure led and headquartered in Canada. This would secure Canada in this century, make us rich and bring stability to one of the world’s most complex new geopolitical theatres.
Singapore was famously able to mould itself — largely through intellectual construction — from a swamp-laden reject of the Malaysian Federation into one of the major hubs of Asia. Similarly, the exercise of Whitehorse becoming the central hub of the 21st-century Arctic theatre consists in embedding the great powers surrounding Canada in a regulatory logic of our own design — without war, for our own benefit and in the service of an international order that will be looking for peaceable touch points in the Arctic.
If Whitehorse becomes the Singapore of the Arctic, let it also be the headquarters for the first major international institution of the post-pandemic world: a brand new Arctic League.
This new Arctic League would build on or, if necessary, replace the “light touch” or de minimis structure of the current Arctic Council in order to provide a much thicker organizing framework. The new rules of the game would ensure peaceful and predictable international commerce, transport, travel, science, respect for Indigenous rights and culture, and energy and environmental relations across the vast Arctic theatre that is opening up rapidly due to climate change.
The Arctic states of the world would initially provide the core membership of the Arctic League, but eventually it would bind all of the continents into a sticky framework from which they will not wish to escape. Much as the European Union acts as a peace project masquerading as an economic one, the Arctic League would help to avoid collisions among a number of disparate global powers and trade blocs. Even nations that are far from the region, such as Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and India, would want to be included in the league, as they seek to profit from the colossal opportunities afforded by a peaceful, regulated opening of the Arctic space.
Of course, if we Canadians do not initiate and lead the creation of such a structure, another, perhaps more serious country or coalition of countries will. And they will do it on their own terms. They will also surely build the leading Arctic hub city or cities — again, in their own interests, not ours. That, too, is a very possible Canadian future — one in which, through national passivity and a vassalized strategic imagination, Canada lives in its own Arctic strictly on the terms of the major powers and swings in the balance of their power plays and caprices across our geography.
The alternative is far more attractive: a Canada that moves with purpose and speed, at great scale, to exit its great post-pandemic crises, reunite and re-energize the federation and impose a bold peace on one of the great, still ungoverned theatres of this new century.
This article was published on the first anniversary of the Arctic National Mini-Conference, organized in Toronto by the Institute for 21st Century Questions, Global Brief Magazine, and the Government of the Northwest Territories. Irvin Studin has advised federal, provincial and territorial governments in Canada (including NWT and Yukon) on a wide variety of topics, including the Arctic, immigration, strategy, defence, foreign affairs, intelligence, the economy, federalism, governance and international analytics.