Background Information for Interviews

Feeling confused about the situation in the Arctic? In a ‘Question and Answer format,’ Shelagh Grant describes her book, Polar Imperative, and expresses her views on the relevance of history to current Arctic sovereignty issues.

Why is Polar Imperative different from other books written on Arctic Sovereignty?

This book uses the history of the North American Arctic to show how sovereign authority was established within the context of evolving international law. Laws of the sea, in particular, tended to adjust to persistent disregard or defiance of existing laws. The narrative also shows how  loss of control over sea routes tended to precipitate eventual abandonment of title to the land. Moreover, by employing a comparative and interdisciplinary methodology to focus on the historical experiences of Russia, Norway, the Netherlands, Britain, Denmark, the United States and Canada, Polar Imperative reveals why some countries succeeded and others failed to establish permanent title to their discovery claims.  Historical comparisons also highlight the objectives of those countries initially vying for a foothold in the region and the diverse political cultures that affected the outcome—American expansionism and the Monroe Doctrine as only an example.

Does Polar Imperative offer insight into historical events not published elsewhere?

While a good part of the book was based on secondary sources, original archival research was used to examine the reasons behind the British Colonial Office’s urgency to transfer the Arctic Islands to Canada in the late 1870s; its relationship to an American proposal to establish a colony on northern Ellesmere Island; the reasons for the British Admiralty’s refusal to define the boundaries of the Arctic Islands; and Britain’s Secretary of State’s refusal to involve Parliament in the transfer.  Archival documents also describe Britain’s subsequent objections to any assertion of Canadian sovereign rights in the Arctic that might alienate the United States or run counter to its own policy advocating “freedom of the seas” and, in particular, those responsible for the strategy used from 1925 to 1933 to perfect Canada’s title to the Arctic Islands.

Why is this history relevant to current issues affecting the Arctic?

Tracking the evolution of sovereign authority shows how various factors—primarily changes in climate, demands for resources, new technologies, economic conditions and naval supremacy—either encouraged or deterred exploration, discovery claims, settlement and development. When two or more of these factors converged, there were often threats to existing authority and in some cases a loss of control. In two instances, for example, this led to abandonment of title, as in Russia’s sale of Alaska and in Britain’s transfer of the Arctic Islands to Canada. At present, we are witnessing a similar convergence of changes that is again creating challenges to the status quo, this time from non-Arctic countries over Canada’s right to regulate commercial shipping in adjacent waters, especially the Northwest Passage. At the time of writing,  Canada appeared least able to monitor and enforce its own regulations compared to other countries, but the situation seems to be changing following announcements of Arctic patrol boats for the Royal Canadian Navy and transfer of the base for Arctic Coast Guard Program to Iqaluit.

Who is to blame for Canada’s lack of preparedness?

No single government or political party is at fault. The problem began in 1880 when Britain insisted on the transfer of the Arctic Islands to Canada, which had no navy or coastguard to monitor or control foreign fishing and mineral extraction. In the 1920s, Canada attempted to assert control over the Archipelago by establishing RCMP posts at strategic locations. Then the Depression, WWII and the Cold War intervened, with the latter requiring major initiatives on the part of the United States to secure the region as part of  continental defence against possible nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Oil and gas discoveries created further need for unilateral declarations of sovereign rights that were later supported by bilateral and international agreements. With the exception of the 1920s, Canadian governments failed to invest sufficient money and manpower to fully protect the vast waters of the Arctic Islands and instead relied on bilateral agreements with the United States should an emergency arise. Yet on hindsight, as long as the Arctic waters remained sufficiently frozen to deter commercial shipping, there was no need for major expenditures.

Do you see a solution to the current tensions?

Full cooperation of all the Arctic countries is imperative to prevent infringement on Canada’s sovereign rights in adjacent waters. Given the current circumstances, Canada and the United States may find common ground to accommodate their respective interests in regulating traffic through the Northwest Passage. Even then,  Canada must also be prepared to upgrade and expand its Arctic coast guard infrastructure and encourage construction of a deep sea ports, initially near the entrances to the Northwest Passage. So far the NORDREG program has been effective, but Canada must expand its program to keep abreast of the increased commercial traffic — not necessarily through the NW Passage, which will likely increase steadily over time, but the traffic in and out of the Arctic as a result of the rapidly expanding mineral exploration and development as well as exploration for oil and gas. The Canadian government’s new Arctic policy, released after the Polar Imperative was written, was a major step forward in identifying areas of key concerns and plans to address them. To accomplish their objectives will require close cooperation and support of all the Arctic countries. At present, the only challenge to Canada’s sovereign right of control over its Arctic waters appears to be from non-Arctic countries which hope to gain economic benefits from commercial shipping and potential resources of the sea bed.

Where do the Inuit fit in all this?

Polar Imperative examines how Inuit of North America slowly emerged from colonial repression and gained control over their lives through land claims settlements and various forms of self-government. Even so, Canadian Inuit are still at a distinct disadvantage compared to Alaskan Eskimos and Greenlanders in terms of education, employment opportunities and access to resource revenue. The Inuit Circumpolar Council created a strong unifying force among North American Inuit, which in turn placed Greenland firmly within the North American community in spite of its Danish colonial roots. What I refer to as “a wild card” was Greenland’s referendum in 2008 that resulted in an overwhelming majority voting in favour of future independence. Should Denmark continue to exclude their Inuit from international discussions on the Arctic—as occurred in the G5 meetings at Ilulissat and Quebec—Greenlanders  might well consider other options.

In terms of environmental protection, however,  Canadian Inuit will be the most adversely affected should Canada be unable to enforce strict regulations on commercial shipping and offshore drilling.  Compared to Greenlanders, they are also at a disadvantage in terms of limited access to revenues from mineral developments on Arctic lands and future offshore oil and gas production, a necessity if  Canadian Inuit are to adequately fund much needed improvements to community infrastructure and educational programs.

Who should be reading this book?

All Canadians, Americans, Greenlanders and Danes! Although based on sound academic research, the straightforward language and unique collection of maps, images and photographs was designed to inform and appeal to a general readership. While it is ultimately the responsibility of the Arctic countries’ political leaders to devise policies and allocate financial resources needed to retain their sovereign rights, they will need the support of a fully informed electorate to make the necessary decisions to achieve those goals. We can no longer allow details of Arctic sovereignty issues to remain hidden from public view for security reasons. Nor can we afford gaps in historical knowledge that misguide our perception.

Further Information

Op-Ed Article:

“Troubled Arctic Waters” by Shelagh Grant

As published in the Globe and Mail, 30 June 2010

Expectations of a better standard of living by both rich and poor have blinded many of us to the consequences, as evident in the failure of the Copenhagen climate-change conference to achieve a firm consensus. Today, leaders of the Arctic countries are faced with a similar conflict as a result of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The risk of such a spill in the Arctic, whether from offshore drilling or commercial shipping, has pitted environmental safety against the insatiable desire for economic growth. Adding to the challenge is China’s determination to become a major participant in the economic development and governance of the Arctic.

Historically, certain events and circumstances, if they converged, have led to a de facto loss of control, especially over Arctic sea routes and adjacent waters. These included a major climate change, shifts in world power, increased demands for Arctic resources, advances in science and technology, wars and global unrest, and economic adversity. Similar influences are again converging, this time with unparalleled speed, signalling what might best be described as the underpinning of a “perfect storm.”

Of all the polar countries, Canada is the most vulnerable to a potential loss of de facto control over its Arctic waters because of its lack of appropriate ships, port facilities and infrastructure to enforce the existing regulations. No one party or government is at fault. When Britain transferred the Arctic Islands to Canada in 1880 – with the Queen’s consent but without the British Parliament’s approval – the fledgling Dominion of Canada had no navy, no coast guard and an insufficient tax base to purchase the ships required to supervise foreign activities in the Arctic. Yet, by 1933, Canada had secured title to the Arctic Islands – at considerable cost, and with the full support of the Canadian people.

Asserting control over Arctic waters and air space was more difficult, with Canada relying on the United States to defend the Arctic Islands during the Second World War, its sovereign rights protected by bilateral agreements. This reliance continued during the Cold War, but with greater Canadian participation. As a result, the security of Arctic Canada’s airspace was protected by the North American Aerospace Defence Command and the waters beneath the ice by U.S. submarines. With Canada’s Arctic sovereignty considered secure because of bilateral agreements, international law and the extensive cover of sea ice that restricted commercial shipping, successive governments could defer the costly investments required to enforce maritime regulations. When the permanent ice cover began to melt – and it did so rapidly – Canada was caught offside.

Over the past decade, political scientists and experts in international law warned of potential challenges to Canada’s Arctic sovereignty. The Harper government responded last summer with a series of promises and initiatives, in a policy statement describing its northern strategy. Although headed in the right direction, the government is moving at a snail’s pace. As the standing committee on national defence reported on June 17, the status of a proposed new icebreaker appears in limbo, as does the procurement of ice-reinforced patrol vessels after bids exceeded budget estimates.

The voices of a concerned few are now joined by larger groups. First off the block was the Arctic Governance Project, centred at the University of Tromso in Norway. Led by a steering committee of academics and policy experts from Norway, the United States, Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Canada and Russia, it issued a report last April calling for an expanded Arctic Council and effective “regulatory mechanisms” to deal with international agencies.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, meanwhile, warned of China’s interest in the Arctic, its construction of a nuclear icebreaker that is claimed to be the world’s largest and its request for observer status on the Arctic Council. Other non-Arctic countries are expressing similar interest, and even Britain, which once believed the Arctic Islands were worthless, now wants to play a part in policy decisions.

In April, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan non-profit organization, called on the U.S. to take “concrete steps” to ensure the Arctic becomes a model of co-operation rather than “a zone of potential conflict.” Significantly, in addition to recommending enhanced marine capabilities, it warned that, if the Arctic Council were chosen as the vehicle for future co-operation, a pro-active strategy must be developed to deal with requests for membership by non-Arctic countries.

A few weeks later, a think tank sponsored by the Canadian International Council published a report that called on Canada to build stronger connections with other Arctic countries, especially the U.S. It also suggested a NORAD-type agreement with the U.S. to protect the Arctic waters – a notion that probably would have been scoffed at six months ago. Yet, in light of recent events, this may well be Canada’s best, if not only, option. As an Inuit saying goes, “Only when the ice breaks will you truly know who is your friend and who is your enemy.”

Canada no longer has the luxury to dither and debate. If this government fails to take immediate action, Stephen Harper may well go down in history as the prime minister responsible for the nation’s loss of control over its Arctic waters – as will the Canadian people for allowing it to happen.

Shelagh Grant is the author of Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America.

Troubled Arctic Waters, Globe & Mail, June 30 2010

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