The Arctic has gone from being totally ignored to being the flashpoint for a new form of geopolitics. International interest is heating up because, to put it simply, the Arctic is heating up. As the sea ice melts, access to the Arctic Ocean and Arctic shorelines is becoming ever more feasible. While this is of direct interest and potential benefit to the Arctic coastal states – Canada, the U.S., Russia, Norway and Denmark/Greenland – the sudden interest being shown by many other nations and groupings is nothing less than astonishing. In recent months there has been a frenzy of policy activity, particularly in Europe, as different players envisage the potential for increased shipping activity, resource development, and the need for enhanced environmental protection.
Having ignored the Arctic for so long, non-Arctic nations have suddenly been bitten by the “gold rush” bug. The US Geological Survey has estimated that over 25 percent of the world’s remaining hydrocarbons are in the Arctic. There are many who would like to access these resources, even though the rhetoric is often couched as noble objectives such as the “need to save the polar bear.” While the current level of interest in Arctic issues is high, the level of ignorance is perhaps even higher.
There is a tendency to confuse Arctic issues with those in the Antarctic, and this is largely because many countries maintain a significant scientific presence in the Antarctic in order to preserve their “claim” to a slice of the Continent. The Antarctic is an uninhabited continent covered in ice, surrounded by ocean. The Arctic is an ocean covered in ice, surrounded by landmasses that are inhabited and part of sovereign states.
These are enormously important differences. I have recently addressed audiences in several European capitals – Parliamentarians and key decision-makers – underlining the fact that the Arctic, especially in Canada, is not terra incognita, and has been inhabited for millennia by the Inuit and Arctic Athabaskan peoples. The Canadian Arctic is part of Canada and is subject to all the laws and regulations of the land – in other words, it is governed.
Lack of understanding these facts is perhaps why so many people want to seize the opportunity to become involved in “sorting things out” in the Arctic.
Canada’s renewed focus
In the last few years, the Government of Canada has given the highest priority to our Arctic, especially under the rubric of “sovereignty.” The Northern Strategy has been outlined in several speeches from the Throne (especially October 16, 2007), as well as in major speeches by the Prime Minister, the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs and – most recently – the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Whitehorse, March 11, 2009).
Canada supports dialogue with other Arctic nations and the strengthening of the Arctic Council of which Canada was the first chair (the Council is composed of the eight Arctic States: Canada, the U.S., Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark/Greenland and Iceland and permanent representatives of Arctic indigenous peoples; other jurisdictions are now clamouring to be observers and/or to move from observer to member status). As part of the strategy, significant investments are under way in military capacity in the North: an increase in the number of Arctic Rangers; a military training centre at Resolute; new ice-capable patrol vessels; and a deep-water port at Nanisivik.
Infrastructure is being bolstered through: a plan to build a new heavy class icebreaker for the Coast Guard; $156 million investment in science for the International Polar Year; and the commitment to build a world-class High Arctic Research Station in Nunavut, thus building on existing investments such as Arcticnet and the CCGS Amundsen, Canada’s research icebreaker. Significant resources have also been provided to complete geomapping of potential mineralized zones, and for the delimitation of Canada’s continental shelf. The recent “stimulus” Budget invested heavily in health facilities and housing in the North, as well as in refurbishing existing science facilities ($85 million over two years). The Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, which came into force in 1970 in response to the transit of the Manhattan through the Northwest Passage the previous year, will be updated and its application extended from 100 to 200 nautical miles to be coterminous with our Exclusive Economic Zone as defined in both the Oceans Act and UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). Vessels will now be required to register with the Canadian Coast Guard prior to entering Canadian Arctic waters.
For those of us who have been involved in northern and Arctic issues for the last several decades, and for residents of the three Territories and sub-Arctic regions of the provinces, this reaffirmation of Canada as a leading Arctic nation is welcome indeed.
Others in the game
So what is it that other nations are up to? President Bush issued a Presidential Directive on Arctic Security Matters in which the traditional U.S. positions are repeated in strong terms: the Northwest Passage is an international waterway; the boundary dispute with Canada in the Beaufort Sea should be given priority; the Arctic Council should be strengthened; the U.S. should ratify UNCLOS; and there is no need for further treaty-making in the Arctic.
The European Commission has prepared a draft “policy document” for consideration by the European Parliament. France has decided to create an “observatoire” for the Arctic under the aegis of the Conseil National de Recherche Scientifique and has recently appointed former Prime Minister Michel Rocard as special Ambassador for Arctic and Antarctic issues. Most recently, Russia has published its own Arctic policy in which it has set the objective that its resource-rich Arctic territories will become the driving force of the Russian economy within the next decade. The policy also lays out the intent to have significant military presence in the Arctic. Given the planting of a titanium Russian flag on the seabed at the North Pole, and given recent Russian incursions into other jurisdictions, the focus has been on Russia’s military intentions in the Arctic and has missed their commitment to applying existing international law – particularly UNCLOS.
The concern about pressure from outside led the foreign ministers of the five Arctic coastal states (Canada, the U.S., Russia, Norway and Denmark/Greenland) to issue an important joint declaration (the Ilulissat Declaration, May 28, 2008) in which they indicated their intention to apply existing laws and conventions based on sound science, especially for the delimitation of seabed jurisdiction (UNCLOS). They also underscored that existing domestic law and relevant international conventions, instruments and institutions provide a sufficient basis for dealing with Arctic Ocean issues; that there is no need for a new “treaty” being peddled by some.
It is important to underline that other than the one sq.km. Hans Island between Ellesmere Island and Greenland, there is no challenge to Canada’s sovereignty and jurisdiction over the landmass in the Arctic. The major issues relate to the marine area. Two small parcels of territory are disputed with Denmark/Greenland in the Lincoln Sea (resulting from the accuracy of maps), and Canada and the U.S. have differences over their maritime boundary in the Beaufort Sea. Other than this, the two key matters are the status of the Northwest Passage and the extension of Canada’s jurisdiction over the seabed and sedentary species.
The Northwest Passage is the stuff of myth and emotion – much has been spent on exploration over the centuries, and many lives have been lost. However, the Northwest Passages (there are se