In October 2003 Adrienne Clarkson, the then Governor General of Canada, embarked on an ambitious trip around the top of the world. The mission seemed to tick all the right boxes, with environment, trade, culture, aboriginal affairs and energy all given top billing.
Calling on Finland, Iceland and Russia, Clarkson’s government A310 Airbus was packed with Canada’s great and good (architect Arthur Erickson, broadcast executive Mark Starowicz, author Michael Ondaatje, filmmaker Denys Arcand) and was loosely positioned around the theme of “The Modern North”. From the moment the trip was announced to the second it touched down, it became one of the hottest topics on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and in media outlets across the country. Were MPs impressed with Clarkson’s bold vision of putting the High North at the top of the agenda? Was the public thrilled that Canada was doing something interesting on the world stage? Were columnists full of praise because someone in a top political post was focussing on looking north rather than south? Far from it.
In an article in the 12 September 2003 edition of the Toronto Sun the paper asked: “What’s the value to Canada?” The paper went on to poke fun at Iceland, question Russia’s role as part of the “Modern North” and wrote the whole mission off as a jolly for Clarkson and her friends. The rest of the Canadian press coverage was about as flattering. Four years on, with an Arctic land-grab in full swing and the environment dominating the media agenda, Clarkson looks every bit the visionary. Had the Canadian media been equally forward looking they might not have hissed quite so loudly when Clarkson’s office announced there would be a follow-up trip in 2004 with stops in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Greenland. In the end, the trip was called off and Clarkson left her post as Governor General in 2005.
Monocle is currently doing a circumpolar tour of its own. Having reported from Canada’s Resolute Bay in our September issue and explored the opportunities and potential arming of the region, writer William Boston and photographer Martin Müller were despatched to Greenland to pick up the story for this issue. In the months to come we will continue to cover this story from points along and inside the Arctic Circle.
What’s already clear is that Clarkson was onto something with her vision for a “Modern North” and might well have been able to fashion everything from a new trade zone, treaties and a comprehensive environmental covenant. At the same time it also could have given Canada the opportunity to be a lead player in a major geo-political issue. More on this later.
In the meantime we’ve got clapped- out Russian bombers extending their patrols around the world, we have Canada looking to build a new fleet of vessels to patrol the High North, we have the US Navy doing God knows what under a rapidly retreating ice cap and skinny polar bears wondering if the next helicopter to zoom overhead is their ticket to a well funded zoo in a city populated by well-behaved children.
In our launch issue we suggested Iceland should seize the opportunity to create a new mid-North Atlantic conference hub at the now deserted Keflavik air force base for Europeans who don’t want to deal with the charms of US Homeland Security and Americans who can’t be bothered to drag themselves all the way to Europe. Iceland – with the help of neighbours Greenland perhaps – could get an Arctic dialogue going by not only hosting a summit but also becoming the seat for a permanent federation dealing with trade, environment, defence and culture; a more muscular version of the Arctic Council. Till that happens, Canada might call Ms Clarkson out of retirement and let her pick up where she left in 2005.