Do we really own the Arctic?

Why we can't protect our far North

Photography by Andrew Tolson

Arctic historian Shelagh Grant, 72, is an adjunct professor at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., and author of the forthcoming Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America.

Q: Is it fair to say the historical record shows that every real political development in the Arctic, every movement of people, every change of sovereignty, is rooted in climate change?
A: Almost all of them, yes. Also I’m thinking of the sale of Alaska, new technologies, changes in outside world power. But yes, climate is the biggest changer.

It’s the climate that allows people—or doesn’t allow them—to get at resources. You pointed out that after the 16th- and 17th-century English explorations, no European went that far north again for another two centuries.
A: That’s right. That was because the Little Ice Age blocked the sea lanes.

Q: And the harder a resource—from furs to oil—is to get at, the less interest there is in who owns it?
A: Exactly.

Q: But then things change. Now the ice is receding again, and you don’t think Canada is prepared.
A: In the last three months, China—which claims to be building the world’s largest icebreaker—has been having very quiet meetings with Canadian officials, and they claim their interest in the Arctic is science, which means investigating the opportunities in seabed mining. And a report that came out from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute was called “China Prepares for an Ice-Free Arctic.” If you gather all these Chinese initiatives in the last few months—and China has now requested observer status at the Arctic Council—I believe it signals their intention to become a major player in future governance of the Arctic and economic development. I don’t think the Canadian federal government has really figured that into its strategy yet. Certainly they haven’t told the public. China and the independence of Greenland are the future wild cards, and the future is unstable.

Q: China in the Arctic is an arresting thought; won’t the response of many Canadians be, “But I thought we owned it?”
A: The biggest thing I have trouble getting people to understand is de jure and de facto sovereignty. Our claim to the islands is secure in law, but you can lose actual control very quickly: the Russians did in the mid-19th century, which is why they sold Alaska to the U.S.; the British were in danger of it later that century, which is why they handed the islands over to Canada. The problem is, can we control the shipping and seabed mining—meaning the environment—when our claim to the water between the islands is not recognized by much of the world? Even the Europeans are starting to favour more the idea of international waters.

Q: Which raises the question of how much effort and expense we will be willing to expend on that. You noted about the Norse in Greenland—a colony of 3,000-plus people in 1300 that was totally depopulated 150 years later—that one of the factors was economic disarray at home and a consequent lack of interest in the colony. Could that happen here?
A: Well, there’s a tenacity about Canadians of not giving up what we think we own, but if southern Canada became far more embroiled in its own economic troubles, or something else, we might not want to get involved with what it would take to defend the Arctic. I would argue we are probably less inclined now than maybe 75 or 100 years ago, because then we had a very idealistic, romantic image of the Arctic that Britain had transferred to us. At this point we’ve got a much more multicultural, much more urban population. I used to write about the myth of the North and the Canadian identity. I think it’s shifting.

Q: You mean the Diefenbaker northern vision is fading?
A: Yes, and the older CanLit, and the Group of Seven, you know.

Q: Particularly important is the centuries-old fight over closed versus open seas. The countries we would hope to have on our side in regards to Arctic waters have historically been dedicated to the principle of free passage.
A: Yes, Britain and then later the Americans. Whoever the superpower of the day is, is dedicated to that, because it’s part of their self-interest. It would also be a subject for a whole other Ph.D. thesis, how commercial shipping, whether it’s for fishing or whales or whatever, has directed and controlled government policies of various countries.

Q: But Arctic sovereignty became really vital for us when the Americans bought Alaska in 1867?
A: Oh, yes. William Seward didn’t buy Alaska just for its own sake. He also tried to get the American Senate to purchase Greenland at the same time. He had the vision, because they still believed that Canada would eventually be annexed to the United States, that if you had Alaska on one side and Greenland on the other it would be like a pincer effect. Even without Greenland Seward believed the pincer of Alaska and the lower 48 would bring B.C. into the U.S.

Q: The timing of Seward’s deal with the Russians—they signed just hours after Queen Victoria signed Confederation into law—was no accident. Nor was our purchase of the Hudson Bay Company lands three years later.
A: Some of my colleagues just can’t see the connection, but the same arguments were used: the Americans bought Alaska in part so the British wouldn’t get it, and we bought Rupert’s Land so the Americans wouldn’t get it.

Q: Astonishingly, no one paid any attention to the fact we didn’t know its northern boundary?
A: Well, I mean, that’s the irony. The British admiralty weren’t sure.

Q: Then in 1874 the British got a jolt, when a Newfoundlander and an American each made inquiries about establishing bases: who owns those islands?
A: That’s the usual historians’ version, but the biggest British concern, the one that really pushed governor general Lord Dufferin and the colonial secretary to pressure Canada into accepting the Arctic islands, was a plan for a proposed U.S. colony on Lady Franklin Bay on Ellesmere. The admiralty knew that they had never been farther north than 78 degrees and their title to anything past that was weak.

Q: There’s irony on irony here. The British come up with an ingenious solution to their problem: dump the islands on Canada. Meanwhile, we thought we already bought them from the Hudson’s Bay Company. And then, for 40 years the British didn’t mention that, by the way, ownership north of 78 is dicey.
A: I couldn’t believe that at first, and yet everything pointed to it. The British did not hand over all the papers they were asked for, including that admiralty report.

Q: How did we get Ellesmere Island in the end?
A: Essentially on a bluff by External Affairs’ [undersecretary of state] O.D. Skelton. When Canada learned that American polar explorer Admiral Richard Byrd was flying over the North Pole and caching supplies on Ellesmere for an expedition quietly funded by the U.S. Navy, Skelton officially defined sort of a quasi sector principle, that Arctic boundaries were defined by the 141st meridian [separating Yukon and Alaska] and a line running down the middle of Davis Strait [separating Canada and Greenland]. Everything between them as they go up to meet the North Pole is ours, just because it’s between the lines. Somehow he sold the U.S. on the fact that Ellesmere Island and all the Arctic islands were Canadian, end of story.

Q: He just claimed them and got away with it?
A: But there was no other country established nearby except Denmark in Greenland, and the Danes agreed to support Canada’s claim if Canada and Britain would support their rejection of Norway’s claims to part of Greenland. There was political trading back and forth, no question about it. But by 1933 you could honestly say Arctic sovereignty, as far as the islands, was secure. The Americans, not having established a base before we made our claim, declined to challenge it, though they still refused to accept that Canada had control over the Northwest Passage. That’s on record as agreeing to disagree right up to the present day.

Q: To go back to your distinction between de jure and de facto control, the Second World War showed us how quickly the latter can slip away.
A: In 1943 there were more Americans, 33,000 military and civilians, in the Canadian North than Canadians. They were governed not by Canadian law but by U.S. military law, and they frequently did things—like building air bases—they didn’t bother telling us about. Ottawa was seriously concerned about getting them out after the war. But then the Cold War began and they didn’t leave.

Q: So even a recognized claim abhors a power vacuum, let alone an unrecognized one. What should Canada be doing to back its sovereignty?
A: Armed patrol ships and more icebreakers in the Arctic. I mean, they talk about 2017 for the new icebreaker, but people tell me that it hasn’t even gone out for tender yet. Immediately beginning construction of a deep sea port, and insuring the necessary infrastructure is in place. And I guess, after the Gulf of Mexico, why aren’t we calling an immediate halt to all offshore drilling in Arctic waters? Notably the Beaufort Sea, but they also evidently have leased out rights at the mouth of Lancaster Sound, and cold water is an entirely different thing. We’re already drilling, so far, in shallow waters, and so far we haven’t had a major oil leak on the rigs. It’s just ironic that the Gulf of Mexico incident occurred at exactly the same time a number of companies were putting requests in to the National Energy Board to moderate the environmental procedure and to not have to drill a secondary well at the same time, that it was too costly. I predicted that would happen in my book, but it was just ironic it did at this time. I don’t really like this one coming true.

Q: You’ve called the future “unstable,” but it sounds worse than that.
I’m a historian so I don’t like to predict, but as things are now, I believe Canada will suffer a major de facto loss of Arctic sovereignty unless the federal government takes immediate steps to ensure it can effectively enforce its own regulations and the registration of all commercial shipping. This will require turning strategy and promises into concrete action by taking immediate steps to get a sufficient number of armed patrol ships and more icebreakers into the Arctic to monitor, inspect and effectively control all foreign commercial shipping in Canadian waters. We need to begin construction of deep sea ports at strategic locations, and we should seek close co-operation and coordination with the United States and Denmark to protect the waters of the North American Arctic. It’s important too that the Inuit directly participate in any international discussions on the future of the Arctic.

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