Canada Research Chair in the Study of the Canadian North


The Arctic has emerged as a topic of tremendous hype (and deep-seated misperceptions) over the past decade, spawning Canadian and international debates about whether new geopolitical dynamics constitute an inherently conflictual “Arctic race” or a mutually beneficial “polar saga” unfolding according to international law. Uncertainty about climate change, international interest in Arctic resources, undefined continental shelf boundaries, potentially viable maritime transportation routes, and perceived sovereignty and security threats make Canadians keen observers of geopolitical dynamics related to the Arctic and what these mean for our foreign, defence, and domestic policies. Discerning appropriate paths forward requires a strong awareness of what has been attempted in the past, what has worked (and what has not), and how state practices have shaped—and continue to shape—individual lives and communities, and how perceived local and regional interests influence these practices.

My research program seeks to offer highly original, empirically-grounded, and policy-relevant research that lies at the intersections of Arctic sovereignty, security, governance, socio-economic, cultural, and community resiliency issues. Blending historical and contemporary insights, this program is a natural extension and amplification of the research trajectories that I have been developing and pursuing over the past decade. It reflects a strong commitment to foster research that transcends traditional academic boundaries and disciplines, provides opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to hone their research and writing skills, and is designed so that postdoctoral fellows and other emerging scholars participate in advanced, interdisciplinary research and writing teams. Furthermore, pursuant to my regular travel in Canada’s Northern Territories, I am heavily invested in co-creating research projects that reflect community interests, encourage evidence-based policy making, and are animated by a strong commitment to social justice.

The general objective of my research programme is to provide inter-disciplinary insights into how Canada has attempted to, and should, balance sovereignty, security, and stewardship responsibilities in a manner that protects and projects Canadian interests and values (particularly those promoted by Northerners), facilitates sustainable development and healthy, resilient communities, and bolsters circumpolar stability and cooperation. My work emphasizes that Arctic relationships must be situated in evolving historical and socio-political contexts which, in turn, facilitate more robust understandings of current policies, academic debates, and public discourse. In turn, deeper knowledge of the past and present can inform a more critical and constructive dialogue about how Canada should proceed into the future.

I have organized my CRC research program into four research pillars (or project clusters).

Pillar 1: Re-Assessing Canada’s Northern Strategy: From Trudeau to Trudeau

Although most of the current debate over Canada’s Northern Strategy focuses on the present and future, history plays a pivotal role in framing and informing perceptions of Canada’s relationships, challenges, obligations, and priorities. Political and popular media commentary is laden with assumptions about what Canada should have done, and therefore must do, to protect its sovereignty, promote Canadian interests, develop the Northern economy, preserve the environment, and ensure that Northern Canadians have appropriate opportunities to practice their cultures and benefit from development activities. Unfortunately, much of the literature promoting “new” strategies and policies lacks a deep awareness about past state frameworks, practices, and relationships with Northerners.

For the past decade, I have sought to re-evaluate understandings of the Canadian federal government’s Northern strategies since the Second World War. One of my main research efforts as CRC is to test my hypothesis that Canada’s Northern strategies have reinforced consistent general themes since the 1970s, balancing sovereignty, national security, and domestic social, political, and economic interests with the explicit goals of Northern development, international stability, cooperation, and environmental stewardship. Concurrently, the emergence of Northern voices, and particularly those of Indigenous leaders, has reoriented forms of domestic governance and circumpolar policy priorities over the course of several decades. By completing the first systematic examination of the evolution of Canada’s Northern strategies over the past half century, I seek to critically analyze how these strategies have been articulated and implemented in terms of specific policies and funding priorities, and in what ways these are uniquely Canadian (or not). This will yield fresh insights into how Canada’s longstanding perspectives and positions on Arctic issues offer a solid foundation for strategic domestic and circumpolar engagement that transcends partisan political lines.

Pillar 2: Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policies

Most scholarship examining Canada’s place in the global Arctic world tends to focus on engagement in multilateral fora (particularly the Arctic Council) or on specific themes rather than individual relationships with other Arctic states across a spectrum of polar interests. Although a few commentators have written about specific bilateral relationships, particularly with our “premier partner” the United States, our former Cold War adversary Russia, and the emerging interests of Asian states, there has been no concerted effort to map out a broader strategy for Canada’s bilateral engagement with its circumpolar neighbours and other states interested in the region. Towards this end, I am working with Université de Montréal law professor Suzanne Lalonde to analyze how Canada’s Arctic interests interact with those of the other Arctic states, suggesting areas of cooperation and points of potential tension in hopes that these will contribute to the development of specific Canadian engagement strategies with Arctic countries.

Recent Russian behaviour on the international stage has reinforced a popular image of Russia as the wild card in the Arctic strategic equation and renewed the question of military security in the Arctic. To better understand the history of Canada’s relationships with this former Cold War adversary, the current state of the bilateral relationship, and future opportunities for constructive engagement on Arctic issues of common interest, I am pursuing a systematic analysis of Canada’s Arctic relations with the Soviet Union/Russia since the Second World War. Deliverables will inform academic debates and provide policy-makers will a deeper understanding of past, present and future sources of competition and cooperation between the two countries. They will also provide fresh insights into the role of non-traditional diplomacies (i.e. Indigenous exchanges and scientific relationships) in international confidence-building and capacity-building.

I am also continuing my longstanding research program that seeks to reconceptualize Canada-US Arctic relations since the Second World War. By bringing Canadian archival sources into dialogue with US sources previously untapped by historians, this project sheds new light on why and how the North American neighbours have become “premier partners” in Arctic affairs, thus challenging narratives that emphasize the friction between the two countries over the Northwest Passage and boundary issues.

Pillar 3: Securitization and Sovereigntization of the Canadian Arctic

A third research stream examines the interplay between sovereignty and security in Canadian state practice since the end of the Second World War. Through a series of case studies grounded in mixed qualitative evidence (government documents, scholarly and popular literature, archival material, and interviews), our team critically assesses how the identification and definition of sovereignty and security threats reflect evolving international and domestic contexts. Who are the alleged “enemies” to Canada’s national interests, and what is the nature of their challenge? Is anxiety about “using or losing” our Arctic inheritance more revealing of the Canadian psyche (particularly our chronic lack of confidence) than of objective realities? How are threat images diffused or translated to new (inter)national contexts? Does the discourse of “crisis” encourage a disproportionate emphasis on national defence at the expense of broader social, economic and diplomatic initiatives?

Employing securitization methods, we seek to better understanding the creation of security threats as well as the construction of threats as pragmatic practice to attain political or policy goals. In Canada, external actors—particularly the United States—have been conceptualized as threats to Canada’s Arctic sovereignty, but not as security threats. Accordingly, by building on the political sector of securitization theory, we will develop and test a parallel model of sovereigntization to explain non-“security” threat construction and practices mobilized to protect Canadian terrestrial and maritime sovereignty (the referent object) as well as the rights of Northern Indigenous peoples and local and individual human insecurities (e.g. food, energy and health).

Pillar 4: Comprehensive Approaches to Security and Safety in the Canadian Arctic

Although official Canadian defence assessments do not anticipate any conventional military threats to the region, lasting solutions to complex Arctic security and safety challenges require a system-wide, multifaceted response that integrates a wide range of public and private sector resources and capabilities. This entails a reconceptualization of the Arctic security landscape, moving away from a fixation on the international military threat environment towards broader human and environmental issues that various levels of governments and Northern representatives identify as the most pressing security and safety concerns (e.g. natural or human disasters, environmental dumping, search and rescue, pandemics), practical questions related to operational challenges, and the need for rapid, coordinated responses. In this light, the federal and territorial governments have begun to adopt an integrated Whole-of-Government or comprehensive approach so that they can rationalize services and leverage capabilities across governments and departments to achieve a shared goal. Although the concept is simple, operations over the last decade reveal myriad barriers to effective integration and horizontal coordination between government, community, and private sector partners. In the case of the Canadian Arctic, implementation requires fundamentally altering public sector cultures, including chains of command, procedures, channels of communication, and even issues of terminology and vocabulary. Furthermore, federal stakeholders must collaborate with sub-national and Indigenous governments that have their own priorities and needs.

By gathering and analyzing new empirical evidence, and bringing it into dialogue with existing scholarship and theoretical insights, our interdisciplinary team will suggest how academics and policy-makers (at all levels) can better envisage, implement, and sustain comprehensive security and safety approaches that bring positive policy and practical benefits for Northern communities (which are an integral part of this process). While theoretical frameworks often suggest a dichotomy between narrow, elite-centred, interstate concepts of security and broader understandings of community or human security rooted in individuals or subordinated groups (particularly Indigenous peoples), my research indicates that security-related activities and relationships in the Canadian Arctic do not always conform to the “militarized and violence-focused terms” (Gjørv et al 2013) that many scholars associate with government-led security initiatives. My extensive work and travel with the Canadian Rangers, a sub-component of the Canadian Armed Forces Reserves that is predominantly comprised of Indigenous men and women, is a strong case in point. Rather than positing military and human security agendas in conflict, my work will continue to support efforts to develop a collaborative, culturally-complex Whole-of-Society paradigm to address emerging threats and hazards in the twenty-first century circumpolar world. Furthermore, by discussing challenges, practices, and relationships at the operational and community levels, I hope to provide insight and advice on how to strengthen cooperative efforts “on the ground” between policy-makers and Northern practitioners.

Pillar 5: Northern Voices and Documents on Canadian Arctic Sovereignty and Security

The fifth pillar of my research program involves the editing, production, and dissemination of publications that seek to share stories by Northerners or about the Canadian North. This includes identifying, editing, introducing, and publishing (in open access, e-book format where possible) the memoirs of Northern Canadians that have not been previously published or are out of print, thus facilitating greater awareness of Northerners’ viewpoints on Canada’s Northern history and society. Further information on the Arctic Memoirs project will be provided in the near future.

Furthermore, I will continue to work with community-based organizations to document Northerners’ understandings about the transition to and experiences of settlement life based upon specific local knowledge and experience as well as perspectives recorded in the southern documentary record. Drawing upon the oral histories of Inuit elders, archival materials in Ottawa and Yellowknife, and the expertise of community members and southern academics, I will seek to develop innovative ways to co-create knowledge which enhances understandings of the evolution of Northern communities in the twentieth century. Elders’ knowledge is pivotal to this dialogue, and I will continue to build relationships with communities to ensure that Inuit, First Nations, and Métis knowledge systems are reflected and respected. Furthermore, I will also continue to work closely with the Canadian Rangers, helping to produce books and popular articles about their past and present contributions that are designed to reach Northern community members—particularly youth.

As Canada Research Chair, I continue to co-edit the Documents on Canadian Arctic Sovereignty and Security (DCASS) series to disseminate core documents on Canadian Arctic sovereignty and security for use by the academic community, students, and policy makers. These open access e-books contain summaries or transcriptions of key primary source material and are intended as research tools to serve as a basis for further, in-depth investigation and debate about Arctic issues. I will continue to contribute volumes to this series, seeking opportunities to co-research and co-produce volumes with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows wherever possible.

This research contributes to Trent’s strategic research plan through its emphasis on innovative multi-/inter-disciplinary and multi‐organizational approaches to Indigenous Studies and Canadian Studies research in all three of the university’s “banner areas” for research: humanities & culture; healthy & sustainable communities; and the environment. It reinforces Trent’s focus on building credentials and competencies of students, including high-level opportunities in research; promotes and supports the creation of new research groups within and beyond the university; will develop new external partnerships that will create opportunities for undergraduate and graduates, as well as postdoctoral fellows; and fits with various existing and proposed Trent research centres that integrate the sciences, humanities and social sciences.