Policy
May 7, 2012

Arctic ambition: Intersecting forces challenge Canadian narrative

With the Arctic steadily moving from the back burner to the front of the public policy stove, the institute of Public Administration of Canada and the Canada Science and Technology Museum recently asked highly regarded Northern specialist Peter Harrison for his views on the state of play. Harrison, director of the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University and a former deputy minister of natural resources, among other assignments, responded with a stellar overview of this compelling topic. He subsequently elaborated on some of his key points for Canadian Government Executive.

 

The Arctic is often presented as a foreign affairs issue, to be negotiated with other nations, rather than a domestic one. Given that most Arctic scholars agree there is little in actual dispute – and that most issues are being resolved through proper channels – why is this dominating so much of the debate?

Peter Harrison: For Canada, unlike non-Arctic nations, the Arctic is a matter of both domestic and international relations. This makes matters significantly more complicated than for, say, France or the European Union, because it requires the balancing of the needs of our Arctic and Northern communities with the pressure from other nations to be “involved” in Arctic affairs.

Over the last 30 years or so Canada has made extraordinary strides in stabilizing domestic matters through the negotiation of significant Aboriginal land claims and the creation of the Nunavut Territory in 1999 as a result of the 1993 land claims settlement with the Inuit of the Eastern Arctic. At the same time the economy of the North has undergone radical changes with the development of significant resource deposits, such as diamonds, and with the seesaw decision-making regarding the eventual connection of Beaufort Sea and Mackenzie Delta hydrocarbon resources to the south via a Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline.

Furthermore, in 2003 Canada ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which allows Canada to define the outer limits of its (existing) jurisdiction over the seabed beyond the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone based on scientific principles and the “rule of Law” (i.e., the “proper channels”).

The reasons why the international dimension has taken on such a dominating role is the result of several intersecting forces. First of all there are different views about the “legal” status of the Northwest Passage. No one debates that the Passage (or rather Passages – for there are several) is Canadian. At issue is whether or not foreign states have the “right of innocent passage” through these waters. Canada is correct in insisting that these waters are “internal” and that such a right does not exist – the Passage(s) are not an “international strait.”

Secondly, there is a perception elsewhere (particularly in Europe) that five Arctic coastal states (Canada; the United States; Russia; Norway; Denmark/Greenland) are somehow “slicing up” the Arctic Ocean. This could not be further from the truth since each jurisdiction is applying the rules negotiated at the world level and which apply to all coastal states (i.e., UNCLOS).

Finally, there is the misconstrued idea that somehow the Arctic is “terra incognita,” rather than being a region surrounded by sovereign states which have been inhabited for millennia, and that somehow there is the need for a new “regime” to govern this area.

And so, the reason for such a focus on the international side of matters is that Canada needs to explain to and educate others about the reality of the situation.

The Canadian government’s Arctic strategy rests on four pillars, one of which is sovereignty. And much of our proposed investment appears to be about establishing sovereign presence (perhaps reflecting the PM’s “use it or lose it” quote). Is there enough recognition in Ottawa of the human dimension and the fact that we have had “presence” for thousands of years? Would greater investment in local economies now not set up Canada for a more significant role later?

This is directly related to the first question. The “exercise of sovereignty” pillar started out as being the most important. However, it is important to make a distinction between “sovereignty” (which is largely not in question) and “presence.” The Canadian Arctic, and indeed the Northwest Passage, has been settled and traveled for millennia. The expression “use it or lose it” is perhaps a shorthand way of saying (sound bite) “we need to have a focus on this region,” but it does not reflect either a legal principle or the history of indigenous peoples. It is important to note that this expression is no longer in use.

For many years it has been evident that a greater support of Arctic and northern communities – above and beyond land claims agreements – is necessary. But the required investment has generally not been forthcoming. The “Northern Strategy” attempts to fix this at a conceptual level. However, and perhaps ironically, the most significant direct investments in Arctic communities and “the human dimension” in recent years were contained in the 2009 “stimulus” Budget which allocated significant amounts to education, health services and infrastructure in the North/Arctic. And all of this because of the collapse of the world economy!

You have talked about the strength and foresight of the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, and suggested it could be the starting point for negotiations. How so?

In 1969 the USS Manhattan attempted to transit the Northwest Passage as a test of the “international strait” theory espoused by the United States. In the event the transit was only made possible because of the help of the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent who was on her maiden voyage (a plaque from the Captain and crew of the Manhattan attesting to this fact is proudly displayed on the main deck of the “Louis”). The response of the government of Canada was to draft, approve and implement the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act (1970) (AWPPA) in a record twelve months. This legislation applied out to 100 nautical miles, and was recently amended to apply out to 200 nautical miles to be consistent with UNCLOS and the Oceans Act. The Act was, and still is, visionary. It provides for controls of everything from ship design to ballast water and refuse disposal.

The point that I have made is that this robust and well-crafted piece of legislation should be used as a model for similar and parallel legislative actions in other circumpolar coastal states. This is probably too much to expect, but Canada should re-emphasize its leadership role, which dates from several decades ago.

It must be said, however, that if there is any challenge regarding the AWPPA it is not in its design or its text but rather in the ability of Canada to implement it. But that is another story.

If the security threat in the region is really an environmental one, what sorts of policy changes – science, transport, policing – do we need to make, in both the short and long term?
This is intimately related to the previous question. Solid legislation and regulations need to be in place regarding the marine environment, marine transportation, and the ability to intercept. The AWPPA is a good model for this.

However, the

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