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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.

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.

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