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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 ...

This is part of The North, a Globe investigation of unprecedented change, to the climate, culture and politics of Canada’s last frontier. Join the conversation with #GlobeNorth

The Globe’s Arctic Circle panel of experts and leaders is discussing five key questions about Northern issues. Their responses and conversations will appear throughout the week on Globe Debate.

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Doug Saunders: “Arctic sovereignty” has become a key catchphrase in media and politics, and many people believe that investments and military expansions are required to maintain or stake Canadian sovereignty. How important is this?

John English: A few years ago, I was involved in a publishing project and was told that “Arctic sovereignty” had to be in the title because it sells best. A casual scan of Canadian book titles quickly confirms the publisher’s argument. It does “flare up” suddenly, as when the Manhattan and Polar Sea incidents apparently threatened Canada’s Arctic claims. But the debates generate more confusion than clarity about the character of Canada’s Arctic presence. Too often “Arctic sovereignty” becomes the first refuge of political scoundrels who obscure the very real challenges facing Arctic communities, and the 1950s sovereignty flare-up in which Inuit families became “human flagpoles” is an appalling example of abuse.

More recently, however, the Canadian government has recognized in a more positive fashion that the continuous presence of Inuit in the Arctic is one of the strongest claims for Canadian Arctic sovereignty. And we do face controversies. The Gordon Foundation sponsored an Ekos poll in 2010 that revealed that 78 per cent of Canadian northerners and 74 per cent of Canadian southerners believed that the Northwest Passage “lies within Canadian waters,” a view shared by only 8 per cent of Americans and 7 per cent of Russians. The same poll indicated that 41 per cent of northern Canadians and 43 per cent of southern Canadians favoured taking a “firm line in defending its sections of the Arctic,” but only 5 per cent of Danes, 6 per cent of Finns, 8 per cent of Norwegians, 10 per cent of Americans (but 34 per cent of Russians) favoured a “firm line.”

These are troubling statistics. They indicate why Canadian politicians wrap themselves in the Maple Leaf when they head north, but they also suggest that Canadians have not made their case well beyond their borders. It is not reassuring to see that the Russians favour a “firm line” when Prime Minister Harper tells Canada’s scientists to extend their claim to the North Pole.

The Arctic Council contains two military superpowers, and Canada cannot hope to compete with them militarily. As long as others have a significant Arctic military presence, we must respond with better ships, planes, and ports than we currently have. We also need to invest in our northern communities and assure that the Arctic Council, which was primarily a Canadian creation, remains the effective multilateral forum for Arctic states.

Rob Huebert: One of the greatest challenges in addressing the issue of Canadian Arctic sovereignty is the meaning of the term. Sovereignty means many different things to different people. Therefore it is often difficult to determine what is actually being defended. It is my contention that the term is not really about the narrow legal definitions that are often utilized as a straw man. Many will contend that a strict definition of Arctic sovereignty refers only to the international legal dispute over the status of the Northwest Passage; the ownership of Hans island; the division of the waters north of the Yukon and Alaska; and potentially the seabed in the region around the North Pole. Many will contend that these are only diplomatic issues that are already well in hand. The logic that flows from such a view is that there really is not much needed to be spent on the defence of Canadian Arctic sovereignty and that the resources would be better spent elsewhere.

I would argue that this is not a comprehensive understanding of the nature of the issue. Defending Canadian Arctic sovereignty is not only about defining the borders and international legal status of the Canadian North – though this is often the first step that is necessary. Rather, defending Canadian Arctic sovereignty is really about the control of the region. Successive Canadian governments have found it convenient to call this defending Arctic sovereignty, but it is really about protecting Canadian interests and values within the entire region of the Arctic lands and waters over which Canada has jurisdiction.

Many people believe that states are like people and behave nicely or like friends. I am afraid that I have a somewhat darker view of state behaviour in the international system. States will defend and promote their own interests. They will cooperate when it is in their own interest. They will also behave themselves when it is in their own interests. For many states, and this is particularly true for the very powerful, they will only respond to the efforts of less powerful states when those less powerful states have the capability and political will to protect what is truly important to them.

In this way, Canada must have the capabilities to ensure that it knows what is happening within its arctic region and that it can respond to the actions of states that may threaten our interests. Thus, I believe that in order to protect the long-term interests of Canadians – in both the North and the South –Canada does need the equipment, training and personnel to ultimately defend, protect and enforce Canadian interests, values and rules.

Michael Byers: Sovereignty means different things to different people. For international lawyers, sovereignty is the exclusive jurisdiction exercised by a country within its boundaries. Canada’s sovereignty is uncontested within 99.99 per cent of the territory we claim as our own, with the exception being tiny Hans Island – which Denmark also claims. Our two other Arctic disputes involve the maritime domain, namely the location of the maritime boundary in the Beaufort Sea, and the extent of Canada’s regulatory jurisdiction in the Northwest Passage. There is also the possibility, in future, that the area of seabed included within Canada’s submission to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf might overlap slightly with Russia’s or Denmark’s eventual submissions, towards the middle of the large, deep, seasonally dark Arctic Ocean.

Resolving these disputes is not a question of money or military power. A quarter of a century after the Cold War ended, we live in a deeply integrated, truly global economy. Denmark is part of the European Union, with which Canada recently negotiated a free trade agreement. Canada is the United States’ largest trading partner. And Russia – the newest member of the WTO – has an oil-and-gas based economy that is heavily dependent on foreign capital, technology, and markets.

In the circumstances, there is no question of a “fight” over Arctic sovereignty, apart from a fight between lawyers. Although there are good reasons to spend money in the Arctic, sovereignty – legally defined – is not one of them.

Mary Simon: Yes, over the years I have seen Arctic sovereignty flare up as a front-page issue numerous times, usually driven by another country staking claim to Arctic resources, or to explain a government expenditure on military hardware. The response to these sovereignty flare-ups is developed in Ottawa, and Inuit hear about it after the fact. There are still Inuit today who can describe in disheartening detail their role in the 1950s sovereignty flare-up. Inuit families were uprooted from their communities and deposited into the high Arctic (Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord) and, as we now know, were brought there to be used as human flagpoles in a move to demonstrate Canadian sovereignty. They were then left to fend for themselves in the darkness of winter – and remarkably, they did. In fact, John Amagoalik – the “father of Nunavut” – was one of them.

In my mind, Arctic sovereignty relates to what I said about Canada needing to understand and value what it means to be an Arctic nation. Valuing our role as one of the world’s Arctic nations means making investments in our Arctic communities with modern infrastructure, and programs and services that are comparable to other regions of Canada. Being an Arctic nation means valuing and investing in the knowledge we have about being a polar nation, including the extraordinary knowledge held by Inuit.

So for me, sovereignty is less about military responses and legal challenges (though I know these are necessary at times) than it is about ensuring that our communities in the north – and by that I mean families – are healthy, well-educated and able to participate in the many opportunities that are emerging through resource development and public administration.

I do want to mention one program that stands out -- the Northern Rangers program, which enlists many of our hunters, men and women, to proudly patrol and make observations and participate in emergency response throughout the Arctic. I hope this program continues because, to use a military term, it “puts boots on the ground” and shows the world that people live and thrive in our Arctic regions.

Wade Davis: Take the continental United States, turn it on its side, plunk it into Canada and where its border ends there will still be 1500 kilometers of our country running away to the north. We are an Arctic nation. For much of our history the weight of the north hovered in our imaginations and defined the essence of the national soul. The most perfect expression of our muted patriotism is that wonderful line of verse by Gilles Vigneault: “My country isn’t a country, it’s the winter.”

The demographic transformation of Canada in the last generation, with half the population of some of our cities having been born outside of the country, has resulted in a thoroughly cosmopolitan nation with eyes wide open to the world but too often closed to the wonder of our own hinterland. Canadians like the idea of the north, but few of us ever go there. In British Columbia we established a university at our geographical center, the very midpoint of the province, and yet called it the University of Northern British Columbia. I once met with Premier Gordon Campbell about an issue unfolding in the northwest quadrant of the province and was astonished to learn that in his two terms in office, indeed in his entire life, he had never visited fully a quarter of the province. Nothing had led him that far north. The Yukon border is but the 60th Parallel. Only there does anything that could be deemed to be Northern Canada begin.

In terms of sovereignty we must surely in the Arctic have sufficient naval capacity to patrol coastal waters, establish a presence in regions in dispute, provide protection and rescue capabilities for both communities and industrial infrastructure. But in the end we lack the political will, industrial and economic capacity, and nationalistic impulse to match the forces of either Russia or certainly the United States. To our immense credit we are not a militarized nation. We will secure our sovereignty once we recognize that we are defined as a people by the North, that it is the North that shelters all of our history and embraces all of our future dreams.

Shelagh Grant: Concerns about Arctic sovereignty are often misunderstood and misrepresented by the media and by politicians. This is likely because of two very different interpretations of sovereignty and sovereign rights.

De jure sovereignty is a phrase used in international law to refer to having supreme power or title over a region within prescribed boundaries, by political or legal right, and accepted by other nations. In this context, Canada’s sovereign rights to the lands in its Arctic region are secure, with one minor exception. Hans Island, lying between Ellesmere Island and Greenland, is claimed by both Canada and Denmark, a dispute that will likely be settled amicably by the two countries. Moreover, with the end of the Cold War, there is no longer any threat of invasion, and no pressing need for a major military presence to defend the continent against potential Soviet air strikes or ballistic missiles launched from submarines. However, this should not excuse the Canadian Armed Forces from receiving sufficient training to defend Canada’s Arctic if ever required.

De facto sovereignty, on the other hand, is a generic or general term used to describe power “in fact” or in real terms, but without the political or legal right inherent in de jure sovereignty. This term is often used in the negative to refer to a loss of authority or control and was frequently referenced in diplomatic discussions leading to bilateral agreements associated with U.S. military activities in northern Canada during the Second World War and the Cold War. With the exception of Hans Island, titles to the lands of all Arctic coastal states are secure, as are their rights to offshore mining as set out in the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty (UNCLOS). On the other hand, increased foreign shipping as a result of rapidly melting sea ice has made the Arctic coastal countries vulnerable to a de facto loss of sovereign rights or control over the adjacent waters should they be unable to enforce their regulations.

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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