The North Gets (Some) Airtime: Federal Leaders Debate

“Big sled, no dog.” Said by no one in the North ever


It really says a lot about the North’s place in the national consciousness that the first substantial mention of Arctic issues in this election campaign took place during a foreign affairs debate.

It says even more that discussion during the five-minute “rapid reaction topic” quickly pivoted to decidedly domestic issues. Our domestic problems are effectively foreign policy, it would seem.

This despite moderator Rudyard Griffiths opening with a question about Canada’s military capacity North of 60, a topic beloved of southern foreign policy types who can’t tear themselves away from notion of the Arctic as little more than a giant game of Risk.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper gamely responded with a reference to the Navy’s long-delayed gas station at Nanisivik and mentioned the promised expansion of the Canadian Rangers to 5,000 members, a promise he first made nine years ago and then dusted off for the current campaign.

Harper then quickly pivoted to his government’s “sovereignty investments”: the Tuk highway, the welcome, but grossly inadequate, infusion of capital for new housing construction and the NWT’s devolution deal, initiatives that are sure to give the supposed gathering Russian horde pause.


And it is true, as Harper said, that the Conservatives have paid great attention to the North, although that simply reveals how low the bar was set before. And yes, it’s good that he put an Inuk in cabinet for the first time, but then he had to go and muck it all up by awkwardly referring to Inuit as “those people.”

Justin Trudeau, for his part, landed the zinger of the round by declaring that Northerners describe Harper’s suite of Northern policies as “big sled, no dogs.” This drew laughs from the audience and a round of “Ooh, what a diss” from the southern commentariat. But while the line may have the ring of metaphorical truth, the uncomfortable fact for Trudeau is that nobody before him has ever actually said that.

The appearance of a social media image bearing the slogan “big sled, no dogs” was quickly circulated by the Liberal campaign, which gives the impression that the line was concocted beforehand by educated adults sitting around the Liberal war room table.

“What do people in the North like?”

“I dunno. Sled dogs?”

“Sure. Go with it.”

Trudeau did go on to make worthwhile points about putting more money into the Navy and focusing research on the Arctic ecosystem instead of dead English guys, but nobody will ever remember that.

Tom Mulcair was kind of sidelined during this exchange, but he did manage to talk about housing, food security and the particular failure of Nutrition North. This was welcome, although Mulcair seemed eager to move on to climate change and speak in generalities about how it is a particular problem in the Arctic. That is true, although Mulcair didn’t really offer anything of substance about it.

Unfortunately, Mulcair wasn’t particularly helpful on food security either. In his French remarks he suggested that the old Food Mail program was working tickety-boo which isn’t true, although a lot of people now regard it as a damn sight better than Nutrition North.

What’s worse is that two days later in Iqaluit, Mulcair said an NDP government will fix Nutrition North by spending $8 million more per year and expanding the number of communities that are eligible for it. But the North’s food security problems are far beyond simply subsidizing harder and faster. (The NDP did a bit better Wednesday with the promise of $100 million to move 25 off-grid northern communities off diesel.)

And that was it. Mulcair’s Nunavut visit generated a bump in Northern coverage, as did did Harper’s forays earlier in the campaign, and you can expect another one when Trudeau comes North.

That the North’s issues even rated a mention on the national stage at all has to count as a minor win for the territories. Generally, people in the south are genuinely appalled by the North’s most acute social problems, even if that always doesn’t immediately translate into political capital to do something about them. (Or ever, if you take the dimmer view, as Scott Gilmore did in MacLean’s this week.)

But it would probably be too much to expect the hinterland’s problems to receive a full and sustained hearing during this campaign. That’s partly due to the depressing realpolitik of our elections, but it’s also because, regardless of who is in power, Ottawa’s actions in the North are predominantly still the domain of the cabinet table and the Prime Minister’s Office. Dislike Harper all you want, but it’s been that way since Confederation.

That, of course, is its own issue. We have three measly Parliamentary seats. Sad to say, but we should probably just be grateful for the airtime we got.

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