Canada, meanwhile, has an opportunity to claim expanded seabed rights to potential energy or mineral resources in the polar region. But it depends first and foremost on geological evidence – whether it can prove to a United Nations commission that this area is a legitimate extension of the continental shelf.
In all three instances, as well as with the Northwest Passage, “use it or lose it” – the idea that presence is relevant to claims to land territory – has effectively no legal impact, says University of Ottawa law professor Donald McRae.
The Harper administration sees it differently, says its former staffer. “This Prime Minister is a believer that the facts on the ground are really important in sovereignty up there rather than just what treaties or agreements say.
“If the Northwest Passage becomes a commercial shipping route and people are dumping bilge oil or fishing up there or there is a rupture of someone’s oil tank, ultimately the government feels it has to have some way of monitoring that and enforcing those laws,” he says. “It’s a long way from having that today.”
In 2008 Ottawa announced it would require all vessels entering Arctic waters to notify the Canadian government. As well, the Conservatives are turning Lancaster Sound at the eastern entrance of the Northwest Passage into a marine conservation area. This would enable Ottawa to set more rules about how ships conduct themselves in the region, known for its rich wildlife.
Rob Huebert, an Arctic affairs expert at the University of Calgary, says Mr. Harper deserves credit for an unrelenting focus on the Arctic, even if he’s fallen down on some of his pledges: “If you go down the checklist in terms of what he’s promised and what he’s delivered on, there’s nothing that has been abandoned yet.”
‘Living the sovereignty’
Speak to the residents of the High Arctic, however, and you’ll find ambivalence about Ottawa’s sovereignty measures.
“When we talk about security up North … we still have to keep in mind that the human dimension has to be front and foremost,” says Nunavut Premier Peter Taptuna, who took office last November. “Sovereignty is best advanced by building healthy communities.”
Clare Kines, a retired Mountie and the hamlet of Arctic Bay’s economic development officer, argues that the $8-billion cost of the patrol ships over their lifetime could be more profitably spent reducing the cost of living and doing business in the North – “for the people that are living the sovereignty. … The idea of ‘use it or lose it’ is a moot point, because it is used.”
Nunavut, Canada’s northernmost territory, is overwhelmingly dependent on air travel because there are no roads connecting it to the rest of the country and because sea ice prohibits shipping much of the year. Plane fares drive up the cost of living enormously for the territory’s 35,600 residents and lead to exorbitant prices for food and other goods.
Mr. Kines says the AOPS money should subsidize air travel instead. “It’s our ‘last spike.’ The cost of bringing B.C. into Confederation was the CPR. The cost of bringing Nunavut fully into Confederation should be transportation costs on par with the rest of Canada. … How much more exploration and viable mining would we have if it didn’t cost you as much to get everybody up here?”
Many others say Ottawa should be spending the patrol-ship funds on speeding up the replacement of aging Coast Guard icebreakers that help sealifts carry food and other goods to Nunavut communities each summer.
In Arctic Bay, 350 kilometres south of Resolute, Inuit elder Martha Naqitarvik shares Ottawa’s concerns about more Northwest Passage interlopers. She’s concerned about traffic through Lancaster Sound, often referred to as “the Arctic Serengeti” or “the Inuit larder” for its animal life. She doesn’t want to see naval vessels lingering: “As soon as they gas up, they should take off.”
Ken Coates, Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy in Saskatchewan, says Mr. Harper has shifted in recent years away from symbolic sovereignty – showing the flag – to what he calls developmental sovereignty, or trying to incorporate the North into mainstream Canada.