In William Shakspeare’s play Richard III, the King famously exclaims in Act 5 scene 4 ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse’. With a little stretch here and there, it sometimes feels to me that the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has offered and promised all kinds of things when it comes to the Canadian Arctic. Since 2006, we have had speeches from the throne, summer excursions to the Canadian Arctic, speeches, announcements and excitement when it was announced that one of the ships associated with the ill-fated Sir John Franklin expedition was discovered under the waters of the Northwest Passage. The Canadian Prime Minister also enjoys plenty of photo-opportunites as well, none more so when surrounded by members of the Canadian Armed forces including the Arctic Rangers.
While attention has understandably been focussed recently on the shooting of an army reservist in the heart of Ottawa and an ensuing gun battle within the Canadian Parliament, news emerged that the establishment of a new research station (the Canadian High Arctic Research Station, CHARS) at Cambridge Bay in Nunavut was getting that bit closer. The station is intended to provide a world class science and technology facility and critically be operated all year round. In the House of Commons in Ottawa, the Harper government introduced the Canadian High Arctic Research Station Act, and this will facilitate the merger of CHARS with the Canadian Polar Commission for the purpose of creating it is hoped a new research hub for Canada’s Arctic, incorporating a range of domestic and international stakeholders.
It is quite clear, as scholars such as Richard Powell have noted in the past, that science and sovereignty will go hand in hand with one another. Just as the Polar Continental Shelf Project (PCSP) in the 1950s was an essential element in Canadian northern sovereignty politics, CHARS will occupy a similar role. However, it is hoped that CHARS will act as an economic multiplier and generate new employment for northern communities. The expectation is that CHARS will open in 2017, some sixty years after the 1957-8 International Geophysical Year and the initiation of the PCSP.
Making CHARS operational in 2017 will thus bring to fruition something that Prime Minister Harper first mentioned in 2007 as part of the Speech from the Throne speech, and again in August 2010 as part of the ongoing Northern Strategy. As Harper noted, ““Through our Northern Strategy our Government is committed to realizing the full potential of Canada’s North…By building this leading-edge research station, we are advancing Canada’s knowledge of the Arctic’s resources and climate while at the same time ensuring that Northern communities are prosperous, vibrant and secure.” Security, sovereignty and stewardship have been the key discursive drivers of the Northern Strategy, and all of this occurs against a wider context of developments in the Arctic Council with new observers joining such as China and Korea, legal binding agreements on search and rescue and oil spill response, and co-operation and tension with other Arctic states, especially Russia post-Ukraine in recent months.
In August 2014, Harper was north again for the construction ceremony for CHARS, and this time he remarked that, “Our Government is committed to gaining a deeper understanding of Canada’s North with a view to improving the well-being of Northerners. Once completed, the new Canadian High Arctic Research Station will harness science and technology to support the responsible development of the North, inform environmental stewardship, and ensure that Northern communities are prosperous, vibrant and secure. Today’s groundbreaking is a major milestone towards the completion of the Station”. His remarks, this time, mirror something that the Canadian chairmanship of the Arctic Council has been keen to push namely a more explicitly economic/resource agenda for the Canadian North and Arctic more generally, and to see multi-million dollar investments like CHARS as a facilitator of wider activity.
One thing worth noting is that while all this talk about CHARS has been occurring between 2007-2014, the Harper government announced that it was closing the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) on Ellesmere Island in 2012. For government critics, one reason for he closure was that it conducting research on Arctic climate change and this kind of research it is alleged is not something that finds favour with the oil/gas-driven agenda of the current Canadian government. After an outcry, new federal money was found to preserve the life of PEARL but a suspicion remained about what kind of Arctic/Northern science was more desirable. It also worth noting that PEARL is some 700-800 miles further north than Cambridge Bay on Victoria Island but it has a very different research agenda to CHARS, which is to be ones that address resource development and environmental issues (and that ordering I think reflects the priorities at hand). The geosciences will continue to play an important role in the mapping and exploiting of Canada’s resource potential (geo-mapping for energy and minerals).
So like Richard III and his quest for a horse, Stephen Harper appears to have his research station, with the rather ungainly acronym CHARS. I am not sure he would give up an icy kingdom for a research station but he is quite clear that the station is an essential accomplice to Canadian sovereignty maintenance and northern resource development. Whether it be creating a state of the art facility (or finding the wreck of a nineteenth century ship) , the underlying motivation is to mark, to continue to occupy (it is worth remembering that around 1500 people live at Cambridge Bay) and to demonstrate to the wider world that Canada’s takes its north seriously.