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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 ...

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.

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