Radical North: Canada’s controversial Arctic Framework is a federal experiment incorporating elements of post Marxist thought that defies classical geopolitical framing of the Arctic – time will tell if praxis makes perfect.
In 2018, the Venta Maersk became the first container ship to navigate an Arctic route, sailing from Vladivostok in eastern Russia to St. Petersburg. A year later, the first shipment of liquefied natural gas left the Yamal Peninsula in northern Russia, bound for Asian markets. Despite abundant natural resources, the cost of extraction and transport had largely stymied development in the Arctic until recently. The recent navigability of the Arctic Ocean has led to international investment in Arctic military bases, infrastructure, scientific expeditions and other projections of power (the reader may recall Russia planting a flag on the Arctic seabed). Against this backdrop, Canada’s recently released Arctic and Northern Policy Framework (“The Arctic Framework”) is a large-scale experiment in radical democracy that challenges classical geopolitical framing of the Arctic region.
The Arctic Framework, released in August 2019, outlines Canada’s priorities regarding the Northern provinces and Arctic claims. The government attempted to move beyond consultation and towards co-development between stakeholders during the policy-making process. The working group included multiple levels of government and twenty-five indigenous organizations. The group failed to reach consensus on many issues.
The Arctic Framework has been criticized for frequent contradictions: is it possible to “support investments in cold climate resource extraction” whilst “[ensuring] conservation, restoration, and sustainable use of ecosystems”? As a governing document, it lacks deliverable outcomes and has been derided as “confusing” and “nothing new” in the press. And yet, the process of constructing the Arctic Framework – convening stakeholders with opposing viewpoints to draft a policy document that includes multiple contradictory statements – was an experiment in radical democracy. The result of this experiment is still to come, but the Canadian government’s openness to dissension signals commitment to the deepest ideals of democracy at a time when democracy is losing ground to authoritarianism worldwide.
Radical democracy was first theorized in the 1980s by scholars Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, who argued that radical democracy is “true” democracy because it allows space for difference, in addition to prioritizing equality and freedom. In contrast to liberal democracy, radical democracy “emphasizes conflict and dissension as themselves constitutive of democracy, as necessary to maintain its openness.” By building a democracy around dissent, not cohesion, participants make visible existing power structures and open the status quo to challenges.
At first blush, the Arctic Framework appears to be a large-scale federal experiment in deliberative democracy, which is generally considered part of liberal (not radical) democracy. Deliberative democracy holds that for a decision to be legitimate, it must be preceded by authentic stakeholder debate.
However, critics of deliberative and liberal democracy disagree with the embedded assumption that it is possible, or even desirable, for groups and individuals to coalesce around a single viewpoint. Rather, radical democratic theorists acknowledge the role of power in discourse – that, for example, the Canadian government and the Indigenous groups are working from uneven positions of power and this imbalance will manifest in the process and the outcome. In the context of such a hierarchy, consensus is only possible by suppressing or excluding dissension, and therefore should not be a desired outcome.
In line with radical democracy, the Arctic Framework does not proclaim consensus, and even includes “Partner Chapters” from Indigenous groups that directly challenge the main body of the text. Radical democracy depends on struggle and disagreement, but both sides must respect each other: in this context, the purpose of conflict is to air multiple perspectives, not to destroy the other. The Canadian government’s inclusion of “adversarial” content within the broader Arctic Framework demonstrates this respect and acknowledges the legitimacy of the Indigenous perspective.
Democracy is both a process and an outcome, and its form is always changing. Lately, democracy is on the run: in 2019, Freedom House reported the 13th consecutive year of democratic decline. If we believe, as Mouffe and Laclau would argue, that radical democracy is “true” democracy, with the potential to create a more inclusive and just society, then the Arctic Framework represents progression in the refinement of the democratic process. Though the Arctic Framework is just one set of policies governing Canada’s North, it is a significant procedural and ideological template for governance and for democracies worldwide.
Since the Cold War, the Arctic has been framed as an “apolitical space of regional governance, functional co-operation, and peaceful co-existence.” However, as sea-lanes clear, competition in the Arctic region is increasingly characterized as the “Great Game” of the twenty-first century. This classical geopolitical framing serves, in turn, to justify international rivalries and aggressions. The radical democratic ideals embodied by the Arctic Framework process provide a contrasting narrative to hegemonic “Race for the Arctic” framing by presenting the Arctic as a complex natural and built environment composed of stakeholders with opposing viewpoints. The question still remains however, to what extent the Canadian government will go to resolve these differences.
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