OTTAWA - A conference on Arctic co-operation with Russia is one of the first moves the Liberals have made in a region the prime minister loves to visit but has said little about.
"The government has been pretty silent and cautious on its Arctic policy so far," said John Higginbotham of the Centre for International Governance Innovation at Carleton University, where the announcement was made Thursday at talks on northern initiatives.
Justin Trudeau campaigned in Iqaluit during last fall's election and spoke fondly of his memories visiting the North with his father.
In March, he co-signed a statement with U.S. President Barack Obama committing Canada to broad policies on environmental leadership. The Liberals are also reviewing the unpopular Nutrition North program, which subsidizes food shipping to the Arctic in an effort to reduce the high cost of groceries.
Unlike his Conservative predecessor, Stephen Harper, who committed his government to resource development and military readiness in a "use it or lose it" Arctic plan, Trudeau has released no overarching policy on northern sovereignty, economic development or international co-operation.
It's about time he did, said Higginbotham, whose group has just released policy papers by some of Canada's Arctic experts.
"It is a call for leadership from the federal government," he said.
Even policies that Ottawa has advanced, such as its climate change initiative, need to be adjusted for the Arctic, said Higginbotham.
"The idea of raising the price of carbon for the Arctic when you've already got dozens of small communities living on the edge of the costs of climate change and highly expensive energy, it's not necessarily the answer."
Old models of northern development that depend on resource megaprojects are of limited use these days, said one of the policy papers by Carleton University professor Frances Abele.
"It will not kick-start the motor of northern economic development, nor will it establish the conditions necessary for resilient and balanced northern economies," the professor wrote. "Indeed, if such were to be the result, one would expect that the engine would be running by now."
Resources are unstable and can bring high social and environmental costs, said Abele, who suggested small northern economies should instead look for growth in renewable industries such as fishing or tourism.
Michael Byers, an international law professor, suggested in his paper that Canada really needs to deal with most countries not recognizing its control over the Northwest Passage.
"NATO tensions with Russia provide a new reason to resolve the legal dispute between Canada and the United States," wrote Byers, who is with the University of British Columbia. "With the sea ice melting, foreign ships coming, and Russia up to mischief, it is time to resolve the NWP dispute."
Governments need to start working together — all the way from local municipalities to First Nations councils, territories and nations, Duane Smith, former head of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, wrote in another paper.
"All the (government) departments that have responsibilities in the Canadian Arctic should sit down as one group with the Inuit organizations and try to develop a common approach," he said.
"The government has Canada’s northern policy, but nobody really knows how to go about implementing it."
— By Bob Weber in Edmonton. Follow him on Twitter at @row1960