Who Owns the Arctic? Understanding Sovereignty Disputes in the North

Who Owns the Arctic? Understanding Sovereignty Disputes in the North by Michael Byers will get your blood boiling if you believe, as I do, that the Northwest Passage is Canadian and not an international waterway. What will be one of the Right Honourable Stephen Harper’s legacies during his nine years in office as Canada’s twenty-second Prime Minister will be his tough stance on Arctic sovereignty. All waters around the Arctic islands of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories are Canadian. These waters are not international passageways no matter what bodies of water they are connected to:

“The legal dispute over the Northwest Passage does not concern Canada’s title to the waterway. Rather, the United States has long considered that the Passage, which cuts between thousands of indisputably Canadian islands, fulfills the legal criteria for an international strait by connecting two expanses of high seas (the Atlantic and Arctic oceans) and being used for international navigation. From this perspective, Canada owns the waterway, but foreign vessels have a right of ‘transit passage,’ much like walkers on a footpath through British farmland.
“In contrast, Canada regards the Northwest Passage as ‘internal waters’ having the same legal status as the Ottawa River or Lake Winnipeg. Accordingly, foreign vessels must have Canada’s permission and are subject to the full force of Canadian domestic law. But while that’s clear enough, Canada has changed its legal position several times in the past century–opening it up to charges of inconsistency and, perhaps, weakening the claim.”

Not good for the international take on our own state of affairs. Stephen Harper however meant business from the moment he took office:

“During his first prime ministerial press conference, in January 2006, Stephen Harper took aim at U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins. The previous day, while speaking to a group of students at the University of Western Ontario, the U.S. envoy had reiterated Washington’s decades-old position that the Northwest Passage was an international strait. In response, Harper told reporters, ‘We have significant plans for national defence and for defence of our sovereignty; including Arctic sovereignty…It is the Canadian people we get our mandate from, not the ambassador from the United States.'”

Damn right. The worry many Conservatives have is that the new Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will cower to American demands to plow through our Northwest Passage. Trudeau is the personality type to allow anyone to travel through the Passage, for fear of offending them by saying no. Canada does have reason to fear that its security–and the United States for theirs–will be compromised up north. Byers makes a calm and reasonable case scenario where ships of unknown origin may travel through the Passage, carrying contraband of any type. Would Canada be able to confront ships defying our sovereignty? Would we have the nerve to board ships and arrest their crews? Byers states:

“Much like people who never wash the cars they rent, those who do not own part of the Arctic have little incentive to accept restrictions on access. Mandatory controls are more likely to come through national legislation, which is one reason Canada is adamant that the Northwest Passage constitute internal waters rather than an international strait.”

The issue of passage through Canada’s Arctic waterways would not be much of an issue if the region stayed frozen for most of the year. This wasn’t a concern when Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan discussed the Northwest Passage thirty years ago. Now however the Passage is ice-free, or can be crossed with the help of an ice-breaking ship, at any time of the year. Why not ensure ships a safe passage by offering one of our own icebreakers? Drop all claims to the Passage, and Canada will do it. If not, shall Canada look the other way when foreign ships sail through our waters? Do we have the military might to back our claims? Byers raises growing acceptance from American authorities in supporting our claim to the Northwest Passage as an internal waterway. He quotes former American ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci:

“I think, in the age of terrorism, it’s in our security interests that the Northwest Passage be considered part of Canada. That would enable the Canadian navy to intercept and board vessels in the Northwest Passage to make sure they’re not trying to bring weapons of mass destruction into North America.”

Canada wouldn’t want any weapons passing through, nor would we want any ships using the Passage to dump their pollution. Having Canada monitor the ships would ensure they were safe and sound; an environmental disaster such as an oil spill would ruin the area forever.

For island geeks and border freaks like me, I salivated over the chapter on Hans Island. This little speck between Ellesmere Island and Greenland is the focus of a serious border dispute with Denmark. However, in typical Canadian tradition, we have managed to agree to disagree and share the island and its surrounding waters. We will tolerate each other, yet we sometimes get involved in flag-raising disputes which, when compared to conflict zones in other areas of the world, seem a tad too serious to get ruffled about. Two maps were included in this chapter yet I would have appreciated more maps throughout the entire book. Since I do not own a magic pocket device and thus do not have Internet access on the go, I don’t have the luxury of having a portable atlas whenever I need one. Almost all of the places Byers discussed cannot be found on your everyday map of northern Canada. Certain islands, passages and straits are only found on large-scale coffee-table atlases, and I had to consult my enormous National Geographic Atlas of the World, or take the book to a computer and log in to Google Earth to find out more what Byers was talking about.

In the Canadian tradition of using compromise and seeking peaceful solutions, I leave you with this quotation. It exemplifies the Canadian way of dealing with the sovereignty disputes in the far north:

“Arctic sovereignty is only partly about using it or losing it. It is also about ensuring that when foreign ships enter Canada’s Arctic, they do so on our terms. Let’s give other countries an incentive to work with us. Let’s build an Arctic Gateway for the world.”

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