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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 ...

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.

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