Diplomacy

POLAR GAMBIT

The Governor General’s ‘politics of indirection’ produces mixed results

JANE GEORGE October 27 2003
Diplomacy

POLAR GAMBIT

The Governor General’s ‘politics of indirection’ produces mixed results

JANE GEORGE October 27 2003

POLAR GAMBIT

Diplomacy

The Governor General’s ‘politics of indirection’ produces mixed results

JANE GEORGE

INSTEAD OF DIRTY, grey exhaust, the bright yellow bus puffed out a plume of steam, much like a boiling tea kettle, as it carried a group of visiting Canadians around Reykjavik. They were there to accompany Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson on her much vaunted state visits to three northern circumpolar countries. And while a bus may seem like an odd mode of transport for a visiting dignitary, it too had a Canadian connection. One of two such buses used in the Icelandic capital’s public transit system, it is powered by a renewable energy resource, hydrogen fuel, with technology developed, manufactured and marketed by Burnaby, B.C.’s Ballard Power Systems Inc. By hopping on board, Clarkson and her husband, historian John Ralston Saul, were opting for a low-key approach to promoting the hydrogen alternative. Or as Saul put it, it’s all part of the “politics of indirection”—essentially using surprise to kick-start Canada’s northern political and business dealings.

State visits by governors general are meant to be decorous affairs, using pomp and pageantry to soft sell the best Canada has to offer. And the Sept. 22-Oct. 15 delegation to Russia, Finland and Iceland, in fact, ineluded an impressive cross-section of notable Canadians: filmmaker Denys Arcand, UN adviser Maurice Strong, retired general Roméo Dallaire, authors Yann Martel, Jane Urquhart, Michael Ondaatje and Wayne Johnston, architect Arthur Erickson, and choreographer Édouard Lock, among others on hand for varying lengths of time.

CANADA’S northern neighbours may come to see a country that produces more than hockey players

But this trip sparked controversy even before Clarkson left. Alarmed by word that it would cost more than $1 million, a House committee announced it wanted to examine spending in the governor general’s office. Clarkson made it clear that as the Queen’s representative, she could not appear before the committee, but agreed to send some of her staff. Committee members, not wanting to appear to be on a witchhunt following the scandal surrounding former privacy commissioner George Radwanski, did not push the matter. They were then outraged that it cost roughly $17,000 to fly two staff members back from Finland to testify.

Whether the state visits were ultimately good value is an open question. The stopover in Oulu, a bustling city of 125,000 in northern Finland, highlighted one of the drawbacks of visiting 15 locales in 24 days. The sixthlargest and fastest-growing city in that country, Oulu is circled by highways and features an industrial park filled with high-tech companies as well as a sprawling modern university. But the visit was so brief that almost no Canadians, including Clarkson, got the name right, let alone profited from the city’s friendliness or learned from its economic boom. “It’s going to be hard to rekindle things we’ve seen in a flash,” said one tired delegate. “It’s an opportunity missed.”

But not for the Canadian wine industry. Saul, a wine connoisseur, hosted a midmorning tasting in Helsinki that featured wines from Ontario’s Niagara region and British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. Finland’s top sommeliers swished some 2,600 glasses of the Canadian wines, sniffed and decided that some were worth a second taste. They particularly liked a pinot noir from B.C., and Finland’s state-owned liquor company agreed to list Canadian wines as a result of the feedback.

For some Finns, learning that Canada produces wine was an eye-opener. Risto Uimonen, editor-in-chief of Oulu’s local paper, the Kaleva, said people are familiar with Canada and like Canadians—but mainly because many Finns play in the National Hockey League while several Canadians are on Oulu’s home team, the Kärpät [Minks]. “I didn’t even know Canada had wine,” Uimonen added, as he sipped an Ontario ice wine during a lunch for the state visitors.

Clarkson and her entourage of more than 50 also visited the Sami community of Inari in the far north of Finland. Formerly known as Laplanders, the 80,000 Sami, as they call themselves, are the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia. Welcomed by leaders dressed in their traditional blue, yellow, red and green clothing, Clarkson gushed over the thrill of finally meeting the colourfully dressed “Lapps” she’d read about in history books as a child.

That focus on indigenous peoples was welcomed by the three Canadian Inuit who toughed out the entire trip—Sheila WattCloutier, chairwoman of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, Peter Imiq, the commissioner of Nunavut, and Mary Simon, Canada’s ambassador for circumpolar affairs. They had no doubts about its value: the tour gave them an opportunity to meet with the leaders of Russia, Finland and Iceland in private gatherings, at round tables and during state dinners, where they could talk about their list of concerns—climate change, contaminants and education in northern communities. And to revel in the showcasing of their culture: the tour coincided with the unveiling of an Inukshuk, an Inuit stone marker used on the tundra, erected inside the Canadian embassy in Reykjavik, and the opening of an Inuit art show in Rovaniemi, a Finnish city on the Arctic Circle.

During the visit to Inari, some 300 km north of Rovaniemi, Watt-Cloutier, Irniq and Simon also joined Clarkson and Pekka Aikio, the president of the Sami parliament, at a round-table discussion. Unlike the Inuit in Canada, Finnish Sami, whose parliament has only advisory powers, have no land claims agreements or even traditional rights to their land. That means any EU citizen has the same rights as a Sami to the land. “It’s fantastic what you have in Nunavut,” Aikio said. “Even the Portuguese can come here to practise reindeer herding. It’s ridiculous.”

Ultimately, the “politics of indirection” may pay dividends. Finnish President Tarja Halonen welcomed the chance to discuss climate change and environmental issues. “We need the money, the expertise and the co-operation,” she said. This means Canadians can likely expect to see more joint efforts like Iceland’s hydrogen-powered bus. In September, Iceland and Manitoba, with its large population of Icelandic Canadians, formally agreed to work more on developing hydrogen technology, into which Canada has already invested $100 million. And Canada’s circumpolar neighbours may come to see a country that produces more than hockey players, one that’s northern enough to have a strong Inuit population, and southern enough to produce decent wine. 171