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Canadian Forces Twin Otter aircraft on the airstrip at Eureka, Nunavut, in this photo from 2008. (Master Corporal Kevin Paul/DND)
Canadian Forces Twin Otter aircraft on the airstrip at Eureka, Nunavut, in this photo from 2008. (Master Corporal Kevin Paul/DND)

The Arctic Circle

The myth of Arctic sovereignty: Do we really need to defend the North? Add to ...

While UNCLOS’ Article 234 recognizes rights of Arctic coastal states to establish regulations to protect the fragile environment, the ambiguity with regard to international straits has left the Northern Sea Route over Russia and the Northwest Passage in Canada open to challenge. These routes are claimed by Russia and Canada to be internal waters, thus subject to national laws. Although powerful non-Arctic countries firmly disagree, so far there has been no physical challenge. But the conflict is real.

With the accelerated increase in foreign shipping, there is serious concern that the unarmed coast guard with its aging ships will be unable to enforce Canadian laws. All other Arctic coastal countries have various forms of patrol ships to perform that function, but those promised by the Canadian government have been subject to delays and dissension over exorbitant costs.

Protective measures taken by Russia, Canada and other Arctic coastal countries do not constitute unnecessary militarization of the Arctic as some suggest. All sovereign countries have the right to protect their lands and people by effective enforcement of their laws. In the Arctic, armed forces and coast guards are used for a constabulatory or policing purpose – defensive but not an act of aggression—and one that should be fully supported by northerners as the most effective means of protecting their environment. In other words, the intention is to provide the same protection for Canada’s Arctic as provided by the RCMP, provincial and municipal police forces and customs officials on the mainland. Because of the rapidly melting sea ice and increased shipping, the current sovereignty concerns primarily relate to shipping abuses which cannot be policed from the air or the ground. If unable to effectively enforce Canadian laws, the consequence is a de facto loss of sovereignty – in other words, the loss of control or authority which rightfully belongs to a sovereign country.

Tony Penikett: I agree with those who say that Canada faces no serious sovereignty threats in the Arctic. The drum-beating of the last few years has been largely for domestic political purposes. I also agree with Shelagh Grant’s view that, of the many definitions of sovereignty, few are relevant to the Arctic. The Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Sovereignty argues, for example, that the days of exclusive nation-state sovereignty in the Arctic are over.

Mary Simon has served as Canada’s first ambassador for circumpolar affairs, as president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and as lead negotiator for the creation of the Arctic Council.

Tony Penikett was NDP premier of Yukon from 1985 to 1992, and the Nunavut’s chief devolution negotiator until 2012.

Wade Davis is an anthropologist, ethnobotanist, explorer, photographer, filmmaker and author of 20 books focusing on remote and endangered cultures. He is a member of the University of British Columbia’s anthropology department.

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC. He is the author of International Law and the Arctic.

Shelagh Grant is the author of Polar Imperative: A History ofArctic Sovereignty in North America and adjunct professor of Canadian studies at Trent University.

John English is the author of Ice and Water: Politics, Peoples and the Arctic Council. He holds academic positions at the University of Waterloo, the Munk School of Global Affairs and Trinity College at the University of Toronto.

Rob Huebert is associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. He has written and researched extensively on Arctic policy and defence issues.

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