Expectations of a better standard of living by both rich and poor have blinded many of us to the consequences, as evident in the failure of the Copenhagen climate-change conference to achieve a firm consensus. Today, leaders of the Arctic countries are faced with a similar conflict as a result of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The risk of such a spill in the Arctic, whether from offshore drilling or commercial shipping, has pitted environmental safety against the insatiable desire for economic growth. Adding to the challenge is China's determination to become a major participant in the economic development and governance of the Arctic.
Historically, certain events and circumstances, if they converged, have led to a de facto loss of control, especially over Arctic sea routes and adjacent waters. These included a major climate change, shifts in world power, increased demands for Arctic resources, advances in science and technology, wars and global unrest, and economic adversity. Similar influences are again converging, this time with unparalleled speed, signalling what might best be described as the underpinning of a "perfect storm."
Of all the polar countries, Canada is the most vulnerable to a potential loss of de facto control over its Arctic waters because of its lack of appropriate ships, port facilities and infrastructure to enforce the existing regulations. No one party or government is at fault. When Britain transferred the Arctic Islands to Canada in 1880 - with the Queen's consent but without the British Parliament's approval - the fledgling Dominion of Canada had no navy, no coast guard and an insufficient tax base to purchase the ships required to supervise foreign activities in the Arctic. Yet, by 1933, Canada had secured title to the Arctic Islands - at considerable cost, and with the full support of the Canadian people.
Asserting control over Arctic waters and air space was more difficult, with Canada relying on the United States to defend the Arctic Islands during the Second World War, its sovereign rights protected by bilateral agreements. This reliance continued during the Cold War, but with greater Canadian participation. As a result, the security of Arctic Canada's airspace was protected by the North American Aerospace Defence Command and the waters beneath the ice by U.S. submarines. With Canada's Arctic sovereignty considered secure because of bilateral agreements, international law and the extensive cover of sea ice that restricted commercial shipping, successive governments could defer the costly investments required to enforce maritime regulations. When the permanent ice cover began to melt - and it did so rapidly - Canada was caught offside.
Over the past decade, political scientists and experts in international law warned of potential challenges to Canada's Arctic sovereignty. The Harper government responded last summer with a series of promises and initiatives, in a policy statement describing its northern strategy. Although headed in the right direction, the government is moving at a snail's pace. As the standing committee on national defence reported on June 17, the status of a proposed new icebreaker appears in limbo, as does the procurement of ice-reinforced patrol vessels after bids exceeded budget estimates.
The voices of a concerned few are now joined by larger groups. First off the block was the Arctic Governance Project, centred at the University of Tromso in Norway. Led by a steering committee of academics and policy experts from Norway, the United States, Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Canada and Russia, it issued a report last April calling for an expanded Arctic Council and effective "regulatory mechanisms" to deal with international agencies.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, meanwhile, warned of China's interest in the Arctic, its construction of a nuclear icebreaker that is claimed to be the world's largest and its request for observer status on the Arctic Council. Other non-Arctic countries are expressing similar interest, and even Britain, which once believed the Arctic Islands were worthless, now wants to play a part in policy decisions.
In April, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan non-profit organization, called on the U.S. to take "concrete steps" to ensure the Arctic becomes a model of co-operation rather than "a zone of potential conflict." Significantly, in addition to recommending enhanced marine capabilities, it warned that, if the Arctic Council were chosen as the vehicle for future co-operation, a pro-active strategy must be developed to deal with requests for membership by non-Arctic countries.
A few weeks later, a think tank sponsored by the Canadian International Council published a report that called on Canada to build stronger connections with other Arctic countries, especially the U.S. It also suggested a NORAD-type agreement with the U.S. to protect the Arctic waters - a notion that probably would have been scoffed at six months ago. Yet, in light of recent events, this may well be Canada's best, if not only, option. As an Inuit saying goes, "Only when the ice breaks will you truly know who is your friend and who is your enemy."
Canada no longer has the luxury to dither and debate. If this government fails to take immediate action, Stephen Harper may well go down in history as the prime minister responsible for the nation's loss of control over its Arctic waters - as will the Canadian people for allowing it to happen.
Shelagh Grant is the author of Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America .
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