Since last May, Canada has chaired the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum established in 1996 by the Ottawa Declaration. It acts as the core framework for circumpolar co-operation and collaboration between the eight Arctic states and six indigenous permanent participants as they work to promote environmental protection and sustainable development across the Arctic.
It is in Canada’s interest to use its position to advance common interests in the circumpolar world. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s sovereignty rhetoric is proving detrimental to Canada’s ability to do so.
In a recent interview with The Globe, Mr. Harper demonstrated a troublingly uninformed view on Arctic sovereignty and governance, seeing threats to Canada’s territorial integrity where none exist, and often painting regional collaboration as an obstruction, not an opportunity, to addressing our interests.
Mr. Harper asserted that “Canadian governments have claimed the North Pole since I believe at least the 1930s. So in my judgment there would have to be a compelling reason to surrender that claim.”
In fact, Canada does not claim the North Pole. In 1907, senator Pascal Poirier proposed that Canada make a formal declaration of possession of the lands and islands in the north of the Dominion, extending to the North Pole. However, it was dismissed in the Senate as there was no legal basis or practical advantage in doing so. Canada did later introduce an amendment to the Northwest Territories Act in 1925 that claimed sovereignty up to the North Pole, but the sector principle never found a reception in customary law. Rather, by way of determining the exact extent of Canada’s territorial claim in the Arctic, Joe Clark, then-minister for external affairs, established straight baselines around the Canadian Arctic archipelago in 1986, consistent with international law.
Mr. Harper himself surrendered the sector theory in a speech in Iqaluit in 2006, stating that “all along the [land] border, our jurisdiction extends outward 200 miles into the surrounding sea … No more. And no less.”
If Ottawa’s intervention to extend our UNCLOS continental shelf submission to the North Pole last month was based on the misperception that we would be surrendering a long-standing claim, it was a mistake with real consequences, as it reinforced misperceptions of the Arctic as an area of potential conflict.
More troubling is Mr. Harper’s concern, bordering on paranoia, about “people who are actually trying to turn the Arctic Council into some kind of international governance model that washes away the notion of sovereignty in the Arctic.” As he iterates, the view “that our Arctic should be internationalized … does exist in some academic and bureaucratic circles and I think most Canadians would be shocked to learn it even exists.”
The “internationalization” that he refers to is the unpopular proposal that the Arctic Ocean should be governed similar to the framework adopted with the Antarctic Treaty. Infamously, the European Parliament passed a resolution in 2008 to explore such a model. However the European Commission never endorsed this view, and it has basically fallen off the agenda.
We cannot find evidence of a single serious academic, far less a Canadian bureaucrat, who supports such a proposal. When Mr. Harper says “I am not going to name people” who hold such views, we suspect it is because there is no one to name.
Mr. Harper states that Canadians would be “shocked” to learn about these allegations and indeed we are: we had understood his sovereignty narrative to be an astute domestic political strategy, even though much of it was unfounded.
But now we see that Mr. Harper has actually drank his own Kool-Aid. Against all the evidence, he seems legitimately concerned that somehow, someone is plotting to secretly rid us of our Arctic territory. In fact our interests in the Arctic are at risk – but by Mr. Harper’s increasing isolationism in the region, not imaginary threats to our sovereignty.
Heather Exner-Pirot is a strategist for outreach and indigenous engagement with the University of Saskatchewan; Joël Plouffe a CDFAI fellow and professor with the Center for Interuniversity Research on the International Relations of Canada and Québec at ENAP.