Northern youth just fodder for Tories’ campaign

Posted on August 21, 2015 in Governance Debates – Opinion/Column
August 19, 2015.   Madeline Ashby

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised, if re-elected, to expand the Junior Canadian Rangers by 15% to a force of 5,000.

They will also receive shiny new guns: a .308-calibre Winchester rifle called the C-19, based on an existing Sako compact tactical rifle design but built under licence by Colt Canada. Those Junior Rangers currently carrying Lee Enfield rifles will be allowed to keep them, as “a symbol of our nation’s gratitude for their dedication and commitment.”

This expansion, and the rifle replacement program, are part of the Conservative government’s Northern Strategy, whose goal is “helping the North realize its true potential as a healthy, prosperous and secure region within a strong and sovereign Canada.”

Arctic sovereignty has been a plank in the Conservative platform for a number of years, now. As Harper himself said, “We share the Arctic with a hostile state, unconcerned with international norms such as respect for territorial integrity . . . Justin Trudeau’s alarming naïveté, and Thomas Mulcair’s dangerously ideological foreign policy, mean that they simply aren’t prepared to keep Canada safe.”

Presumably, arming a group of 12-18 year-olds and asking them to work alongside seasoned adults as scouts is the answer.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the Junior Canadian Rangers program.

In fact, teaching kids how to operate guns, snowmobiles and other dangerous pieces of equipment safely, as well as how to survive in the wilderness, is a pretty great idea. That so many of the youth who participate are aboriginal is even better: many JCR cadet patrols focus on preserving aspects of “traditional” aboriginal life local to their areas. (What this means varies by area.) And the JCR is undivided by gender. Boys and girls participate in training together.

What’s wrong is positioning the accomplishments of these young people as valuable only in their contribution to Canada’s plans for Arctic sovereignty.

Learning how to navigate, build a shelter, pilot a boat, deliver first aid and lead a team are all valuable skills. But they’re valuable skills in and of themselves, outside of a national defence agenda. More kids everywhere should learn those same skills, not just the ones who, Sarah Palin-like, might see some Russians from their porch.

When we involve youth, especially under-privileged youth, in a national defence agenda, we tell them that their primary value to Canada is as watchdogs and little else. The expansion of the JCR sounds a lot like Red Dawn, but also a bit like Game of Thrones: perhaps some day kids from all over Canada will be sent to watch the border for those mythical Russian wildlings.

Why focus so intently on the military contribution these kids can provide? Why not focus on the social value? Isn’t that also part of peace, order\ and good government?

The answer is that a primarily social good that is of benefit to under-privileged youth in communities where not nearly enough of Canada’s bounty is invested just doesn’t play to the Conservative party’s base. And the Conservative party’s strategy this election has been to play to their base, to promise more of the same.

This, at a time when most Canadians say they’re no better off than they were four years ago. And they’re not: faced with rising housing and food costs, escalating personal debt, and cancer cases projected to rise by 40 per cent in 15 years as the population ages, Canadians are no healthier or wealthier than they were in 2011. Promising more of the same is one strategy. But it might also be why the Tories have slipped into third place in some polls.

Madeline Ashby is a strategic foresight consultant and novelist in Toronto., Twitter @MadelineAshby.

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