American Enterprise Online
January 23, 2006
By Alan W. Dowd 

An unexpected Election Day, shaped by unexpected forces, could yield unexpected results for Canada—and the world.

Canada’s January 23 elections were triggered when opposition parties coalesced to bring down the corruption-plagued government of Prime Minister Paul Martin with a no-confidence vote in late November. After trailing Martin’s Liberal Party for months on end, the Conservative Party recently surged ahead in polls, with a plurality of Canadians saying they favor the opposition party over the Liberal Party, which has been in power since 1993. But what’s just as intriguing is how these elections are being energized by something few people on either side of the border normally identify with Canada—nationalism. 

For years, “not being American” was perhaps the one thing that united Canadians and separated them from the colossus to the south. But if the tenor of this election is any indication, Canada’s strange strand of “non-nationalism” may be giving way to more traditional nationalism. 

Consider the anger America’s genteel northern neighbors have expressed over reports that US submarines have been traversing the icy waters around the North Pole without Ottawa’s permission. “Arctic waters are Canadian and are sovereign waters,” Martin intoned in December. “Canada will defend its sovereignty.”  

The USS Charlotte, which apparently visited the North Pole in November without prior notification, was the most recent culprit—or perhaps better said, the most recent case of which we are aware. There are reports that other submarine-armed navies have been playing in Canada’s waters, too. As Gordon O’Connor, a Conservative MP and former brigadier general, told the Canadian Press last month, it is common knowledge among Canadian national-security experts that nuclear submarines from the United States, Russia, France and Great Britain “pass through our territory without necessarily seeking permission.” 

Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper promises to be tougher than Martin when it comes to protecting Canada’s borders and waters. To punctuate his commitment to Canadian sovereignty, Harper has dubbed his defense strategy “Canada First.”  

He wants to erect an arctic sensor system to detect incursions, set up new military bases in the arctic, deploy a new airborne unit and acquire new long-range lift capabilities. Along the way, he plans to pour billions into Canada’s emaciated military, vowing to boost defense spending to $20 billion annually.   

With Martin himself promising $12.8 billion in new military spending over five years (the largest increase in two decades) and Harper promising $1.8 billion annually above and beyond Martin’s proposal, tomorrow’s Canada could have the muscle and the will to be much different than today’s. 

“The single most important duty of the federal government is to protect and defend our national sovereignty,” Harper noted last month. “You don’t defend national sovereignty with flags, cheap election rhetoric and advertising campaigns,” Harper argued during his bid for Martin’s job. “You need forces on the ground, ships in the sea and proper surveillance.” 

Harper’s reference to defending Canada with flags has to do with Martin’s clumsy handling of a territorial dispute with Denmark over tiny Hans Island, the uninhabited chunk of land sandwiched between Danish-controlled Greenland and Canadian-controlled Ellessmere Island. Both countries have claimed it for more than 30 years.  

Denmark has sent ships and/or troops to the island at least five times over the last 17 years. Three times between 1984 and 2004, Danish forces even raised their colors. Canadian forces raised their flag over the rock in mid-2005. 

In a fit of frustration or foolishness, Canadian Defense Minister Bill Graham then visited the island in July 2005. “We are making sure the Danes know that this is part of Canadian territory,” he said during his walk across the frozen isle. Denmark responded by sending a ship to Hans—and by planting another Danish flag. Canada then sent a three-ship taskforce to the island, displaying what the British newspaper The Independent called “a new and almost bellicose determination to protect the sovereignty of its northernmost boundaries.” 

By September of last year, the sides agreed to resolve the matter at the UN, setting the Doomsday Clock back for these two NATO juggernauts—at least for now.  

The incident may sound silly, but to some it appeared that Canada essentially backed down. After all, if the island is important enough to send the defense minister and a detachment of troops, why defer it to the UN?

The answer may be Canada’s ever-weakening defenses. Hans Island is just the latest example of how Ottawa’s pitiful defense outlays force it to conduct a toothless foreign policy by default. Recall that Canada’s paltry defense budget of $13 billion accounts for just 1.1 percent of its GDP, ranking it 128th in the world.

It wasn’t always this way. Historian Derek Leebaert notes how Canada, “whose GDP was about a tenth of the United States,” shouldered a third of the cost of deploying the radar stations that guarded North America against Soviet bombers during the Cold War. As the CBC detailed recently, at the end of World War II, Canada had the third-largest fleet of warships in the world. Today, Canada has just 30 ships and four submarines. Canada dispatched a million men to fight in World War II. Today, it has just 1,200 troops deployed overseas—most of whom had to be delivered by US transport planes.

“In international law,” as General O’Connor bluntly concludes, “sovereignty must be enforced to be recognized.” Perhaps Canada, at long last, is remembering this truth—and summoning both the tools and the will to rejoin the ranks of the sovereign.