The Canada-Scandinavia Axis
by Erik Solem


Last December the federal government tabled its official response to the report of the Special Joint Committee of the Senate and House of Commons on Canada's International Relations. This document, Canada's International Relations, sets forth the direction of Canadian foreign policy in years to come. Both for that reason, as well as for the elaborate and comprehensive process of consensus-formation leading up to its completion, the document is significant.


Canada is defined as an "Arctic nation". In the past, this had not been considered particularly important; this time around, it clearly is, although "circumpolar nation" may have been a more apt description. Among several reasons for the change in official perception was the voyage of the U.S. ice-breaker Polar Sea through the Northwest Passage the previous summer; as a result, Canada's arctic sovereignty loomed large in the development of the four themes which now dominate our comprehensive northern foreign policy:

By definition, and given the context, there is bound to be a certain amount of "spillover" among these themes. However, the fourth theme is of particular interest from a circumpolar point of view. The government states its intention to explore ways of expanding bilateral and multilateral co-operation with all northern states in areas of mutual interest, including trade, security, native people, environment, economic development, education, health, science, and technology. This useful and forthright declaration of intent, as well as an "invitation" to other northern states, is too important to be ignored. So far, it has been taken up only by the U.S.S.R. No similar agreement has yet been reached with the Scandinavian states, with which Canada has much in common.

 The northern dimension is very important for Canada, now as well as in the future. There are several interesting similarities between Canada and Scandinavia which could be emphasized.

The most obvious are related to geography, an important factor in any national strategy. Geographically, Canada and Scandinavia are on roughly the same latitude, with similar climatic conditions. Both are clear examples of fairly advanced industrial systems, with areas or regions that have reached economic "take-off" without full industrialization. Both have well-developed parliamentary systems of government with traditionally high "consensus" politics in several important areas, such as a general agreement on universal medical service, the minimization of at least rampant unemployment, free basic education in a manner quite different from, say, that of the United States and the maintenance of a "just" welfare system. In this Important sense, our two political cultures are quite similar. Furthermore, both Canada and Scandinavia have a relatively high level of literacy and political maturity, in the sense that most citizens are capable of understanding and discussing relatively complex issues. This, of course, is not the case in most of the world, and is worth emphasizing.

 Population size is also roughly the same, around 25 million inhabitants. Furthermore, both Canada and Scandinavia contain cultural and linguistic minorities, for example, French-speaking in Canada versus Finnish-speaking in Scandinavia; and each "minority", so to speak, holds within itself a "majority", for example, French versus English in Quebec, Finnish versus Swedish in Finland. Furthermore, both Canada and Scandinavia seem to have been able to build up and maintain a relatively peaceful consensus-seeking and conflict-avoiding system, which, again, is not the case elsewhere in the world where different linguistic and cultural groups co-exist in the same geographical space. Here, Canada and Scandinavia have something quite important to teach the world, and we should support each other and co-operate fully in this respect.

 Each region (and Canada is, in a particular sense, a "regional" country) has close geographic proximity to a source and centre of power roughly 10 times its own size: in Canada's case, the United States; in the Scandinavian case, the U.S.S.R.. This is not to imply that the two superpowers behave in a similar way or that they have anything like identical designs on their environments or, for that matter, the rest of the world. The point here is simply that such a power imbalance may tend to create certain psycho-cultural pressures which, left to themselves, could become quite damaging. In this sense, Canada and Scandinavia "need" each other, a fact that has already been clearly identified in the international arena. The Scandinavian countries and Canada have traditionally worked closely together in various multilateral organizations. In the days of Lester Pearson and Halvard Lange, they used to speak of the Ottawa-Oslo Axis.

 Now, for overwhelming security reasons, we are tied to the United States as members of NORAD and NATO, the latter being an organization to which three of the five Scandinavian states also belong. To break away from this security agreement would be madness and should, of course, not be contemplated. However, to bring the Nordic states closer together along the lines set out in the recent policy statement would seem to make eminent sense for the reasons spelled out above.

Scandinavia and Canada are focusing increasingly on developments in the North. Therefore, they have a shared interest in managing northern developments in a manner which will not increase tensions or degrade the environment. The military threat to Norway and Canada, emanating as it does from the same source, has made any Canadian military commitment to Norway an expression of forward defence for Canada as well. Furthermore, neither Canada nor Scandinavia (excluding Denmark, for several reasons) are members of the European Community and, hence, should have a shared political interest in preserving their own voice in an alliance which may become increasingly dominated by the United States and the European Community.

 For all of the above reasons, closer ties and increased de facto co-operation could be a very good thing. One remaining problem is that Scandinavians again like Canadians, but unlike the Soviets-are somewhat shy and timid. Therefore, it is important that the ice be broken. Canada has much to gain from intensifying its ties with the smaller circumpolar countries where it can make its independent presence felt. Perhaps it should take the initiative in keeping with this policy.


Erik Solem is past-president of the Canadian-Nordic Society and author of The Nordic Council and Scandinavian Integration.

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