The new cold war

December 23, 2009 — The Canadian Business Journal

“This memorial is erected today to commemorate the taking possession for the Dominion of Canada of the whole Arctic Archipelago.” Captain J.E. Bernier, Canadian mariner

Bernier engraved that statement into a plaque 101 years ago, before nailing it into the ground on Melville Island. A century later, Canadians still believe that declaration of sovereignty to be true, that the broadly defined Arctic is a part of our national identity.

According to our map, Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic includes the three northern territories, the archipelago and our border pinnacles at the edge of North Pole— imagine a poorly drawn triangle. Canada believes we have supreme and independent authority over all the land and waters within that triangle.

It seems, however, that other circumpolar countries aren’t convinced. It doesn’t help our case that, up until recently, Canada’s Arctic has been virtually neglected by the Canadian government. So the question is how much of Canada’s ‘true north’ is actually ours? Subsequently, is it really ‘strong and free’?

The Pole

Even though it’s an international site, it is possible for a country to claim the North Pole. The rule says all countries have control over the resources under their waters for up to 200 nautical miles from the shoreline. That territory, however, can be expanded if the country proves the rock formations underwater are connected to its continental shelf.

If a country wants to claim this right, its government must sign an international treaty giving them 10 years to scientifically prove its claim to a UN commission. Canada already signed the treaty in 2003, so we are under a three-year deadline. We are in the position of having to justify why our borders should extend over 800 kilometres past the northernmost land mass, Ellesmere Island.

Canadian scientists are working hard to meet the deadline. The government launched a naval mission in August 2009, to measure how far the North American continental shelf actually extends into the ocean. In the meantime, other circumpolar countries are staking new territorial claims. Russia, for example, is asserting its Lomonosov Ridge lies beneath the North Pole and even reaches beyond the Pole, heading south to the Arctic Archipelago. The United States is also surveying the ocean floor north of Alaska.

What lies beneath

Fighting for waters that are covered in ice might seem like an exercise in futility, but there are good reasons to prove sovereignty over Arctic waters. It is no secret the polar ice caps are melting; in fact, at the recent Copenhagen climate change summit, computer modeling suggested the Arctic Ocean may be nearly icefree by the summer of 2014.

Depending on the agenda, this has a number of implications. Economically, there lies a tonne of potential. The Arctic is thought to have billions of barrels worth of undiscovered oil and a third of the world’s undiscovered gas. It should come as no shock, then, that oil companies are sending geologists up north. Of course, this has environmental consequences. On the other side of the continuum are people who want sovereignty in order to protect the waters and their wildlife.

Rocking the boat

Another Arctic sovereignty issue for Canada surrounds the archipelago. While the islands themselves are safely considered Canadian soil— with the exception of the Hans Island dispute between Denmark and Canada, in which both countries agree to disagree—what is less clear is the jurisdiction over the waters in between the islands.

Naturally, the Canadian government insists they are internal and asserts unlimited territorial control via the navy. But it’s the Northwest Passage that leaves the issue open for interpretation. Though the Northwest Passage does cut through Canadian islands, it does represent a sea route through the Arctic Ocean. In the opinions of the United States and the European Union, it is an international strait that any ship should be able to cross.

According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, coastal countries are entitled to control access to the shoreline along their coasts, within a belt of 12 nautical miles (22.2 km). To clarify, the 200-mile border ensures an exclusive economic ownership, but foreign nations have the freedom of navigation and over-flight. The 12-mile border is considered completely internal and no foreign vessels have the right to transit. Alas, many of the waterways dividing the Arctic islands are nearly 100 kilometres wide, leaving space for any ship to travel down the middle.

Interestingly, a caveat has been made for archipelagic states, which defines how a country can draw its territorial borders. A baseline is drawn between the outermost points of the outermost islands and all waters inside this baseline are designated archipelagic waters, over which the state has full sovereignty.

Beyond proving our waters are internal, Canada also has to prove the Northwest Passage isn’t an international strait. If no such proof can be found, it would transcend national jurisdiction and Canada would not have the power to exercise sovereignty over those waters.

Weakening our sovereignty claim has been our lack of ability to protect our northern assets. Aware of the critics, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is stepping up Canada’s military presence to protect them. “We understand the first principle of Arctic sovereignty is ‘use it or lose it,’” Harper said in August 2009.

Harper’s plans include: establishing a Canadian Forces Arctic Training Centre in Resolute Bay, Nunavut, which is now complete; expanding the Canadian Rangers by 900 members, with upgraded weapons and transport vehicles; and a deepwater Arctic docking and refuelling facility in Nanisivik, Nunavut, which is expected to start operating in 2012.

A long-overdue investment

Military presence is just one of four principles in the government’s Integrated Northern Strategy. The other three include protecting our environmental heritage, promoting economic and social development and improving and devolving governance.

Canada’s newfound attention to the Arctic is heartening, not just for the country’s ability to assert authority, but for the Arctic’s citizens and their economic stability. It was high time we valued what we have long enough to not only want to defend it, but to invest in it.

John Jacobsen, a long-time northern resident and President of the Tower Group of Companies, agrees. He has recognised the Arctic’s potential for decades. Jacobsen’s construction and development company is the second-oldest, pan-Arctic company that is still in operation—the oldest being the Hudson’s Bay Company.

“Whenever something about the ‘race for the pole’ broaches the news media, it brings us back to a new awareness for the Arctic,” he says. “It reminds Ottawa of why the north is so important. We’re one of the world’s last economic frontiers. We’re rich with natural resources, whether it’s gold, uranium, oil and gas, diamonds, sapphires or iron ore. And there are business opportunities in getting those resources to market, as well as building the required infrastructure to support mining.”

For our science and technology industries, the north represents incredible opportunities for Canada to innovate and leverage our expertise to benefit the country and the globe. “As someone who, over the years, has seen winters get shorter, I can tell you global warming is happening,” says Jacobsen. “I think there’s a lot to be explored in the field of science to slow down that process and investigate alternative energy sources. There are huge business prospects up here—new ventures are not guaranteed to be an overnight success, but the opportunities are only limited by our imagination.”

More investment into the north will no doubt benefit Canada’s economy, but the social impact is arguably more valuable, as aboriginal populations are brought into mainstream economies. To the majority of Canadians, the Arctic’s 100,000 residents may seem like a distant afterthought, but they are our countrymen and their occupancy of the north is what strengthens Canada’s claims to it. “Our Inuit and Aboriginal population—who have chosen to be Canadian citizens—have occupied this territory since the beginning of recorded history,” Jacobsen maintains. “We have a living presence here.”

For the record, when it comes to what northerners think about Canada’s Arctic sovereignty, Jacobsen says it’s obvious. “We are Canadians and the Arctic is our home. There is no real argument in our minds; the Arctic is ours.”

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