The Big Thaw: Canadian Arctic Politics

A hamlet on the Northwest Passage has been chosen as the home for Canada’s High Arctic Research Station, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Tuesday [August 24th].

The western Nunavut community of Cambridge Bay has been chosen over Resolute Bay and Pond Inlet to the east. All three sites were shortlisted in 2009 as possible locations.

“This will be a world class centre for science,” Harper told reporters on Tuesday. “It will be a tangible expression of this government’s determination to develop and protect all of our true North.” via

The Canadian Arctic is a place where myths are often confronted by reality.  Canadians like to believe that Americans blindly accept that we live in a land of constant ice and snow, and that we all live in igloos.  By extension we also like to believe that all ice and snow in North America (except for Alaska) is our sovereign domain.

The problem, of course, is that almost none of us live in igloos and at least 75% of us live within the balmy 160km (100 miles) of the American border.  The rest of Canada is sparsely populated, relatively resource-rich and frequently inhospitable.  Our claim to sovereignty over all land, ice and water in the north has never been accepted internationally, most notably by our southern neighbours.

This discrepancy has often resulted in fears over American incursions into Canadian sovereignty.  This is not unusual for neighbours, even ones who have peacefully co-existed for nearly 200 years.  The nineteenth and twentieth century treaties that settled Canadian and American borders are appropriately vague on the Arctic issue.  The current fears of sovereignty incursions have a relatively short lifespan, dating to 1940.

The first year of the Second World War looked ominous for Britain and the British Empire.  In 1940 the possibility of an invasion of North America was slight but real.  American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was still neutral at the time, and Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King released the Ogdensburg Declarations to address this possibility, by creating the Permanent Joint Board on Defence.  Leading up to the Second World War, Roosevelt claimed that any invasion of North America would be met with American force, and King guaranteed that Canada would not be an easy beachhead for an invasion of the United States.  The lack of equality in these commitments signifies the imbalance of power.  The question for Canadians has long remained: how can we be sovereign if we cannot even defend our vast territory without help from our neighbours?

The matter became a political hot potato when American troops were sent to Canada to construct the Northwest Staging Route and other continental defence projects.  The presence of American troops and contractors persisted after the war for continental defence and continental air defence projects like the Distant Early Warning line of radar stations.

To assert Canada’s independence and authority in the Arctic the Defence Research Board began to work there in 1947.  The DRB created a research station at Fort Churchill, Manitoba and it awarded grants to university researchers for Arctic research, which was part of the DRB’s mandate because it was something for which Canada had a unique expertise among the Atlantic Triangle allies.  For a decade and a half the DRB investigated three areas of scientific and technical interest, ostensibly with the purpose of being able to fight against a Russian invasion.  First, the DRB researched basic information like navigation, geography, geology, zoology, botany and glaciology.  Second, the DRB investigated what effects the northern climate had on soldiers.  Third, and finally the DRB sought ways to improve communication in the north by learning about the ionosphere.

The DRB eventually abandoned most of this research programme for four reasons.  First, climate chambers based in more accessible areas (like Toronto) could acclimatize soldiers to any conditions from the cold of the Arctic to the heat of the desert at a much better price.  Second, satellites, like the Alouette I and II and Isis I and II that were created by the DRB, negated the need for further ionospheric research by allowing for a new type of long-range communication.  Third, the improbable Russian invasion through the Arctic became increasingly unlikely.  Fourth, the pattern of defence-research sharing in North American exhibited the same inequalities as the balance of power; the Americans investigated whatever they deemed necessary and shared this information with Canadians when it suited them.  Arctic research in Canada mostly passed out of the hands of the military in the 1960’s, and Canadians have been relatively disinterested in Arctic research until quite recently.

The laboratory at (Fort) Churchill eventually became a rocket-launching facility run by the National Research Council for NASA.  In the 1960’s it was one of many sites in Canada that hosted American defence and defence research endeavours.

The opposition party in parliament is obligated by the rules of engagement to criticize the governing party for its decisions.  Any time the governing party in Canada agrees to allow the United States to bolster Canada’s defences, rather than preventing the Americans from doing what they feel is best for their own defence, the opposition party has a civic duty to criticize the government for throwing away Canadian sovereignty.

This political ruse has been bought by a great many journalists, historians and political scientists as a legitimate issue, which ignores the subtlety of the situation: two sovereign governments agree to act in a way that is mutually beneficial, with the more powerful ally taking on more of the responsibility and receiving more placation of its needs.  The opposition parties know that they would have made the same agreements, and faced the same criticism, if roles were reversed in parliament.

Consequently the sovereignty debate in Canada has long been sidetracked from the real issue.  Some of the ice and water, and potentially some of the islands, are not internationally recognized as Canada’s domain.  When this area was covered entirely by glaciers, and no one had noticed the presence of undersea oil reserves, there was little need for concern.

Unfortunately, the area covered by glaciers is decreasing thanks to climate change.  Extraction and then use of oil under the Beaufort Sea will indubitably contribute to climate change.  As the ice, that entity that is neither land nor water, melts away the problems of sovereignty and northern borders become acute.  Canada claims all the islands, and contests that the water between them is an internal waterway, rather than international waters.  The United States, Russia and Denmark, the other Arctic stakeholders, don’t agree.

Now that there are economic benefits rather than bragging rights, politicians have turned to history and science to prove Canada’s claim.  Earlier this summer Parks Canada uncovered the wreck of the HMS Investigator, which was put forward as a claim that Canadians (actually the British, who transferred all of their Arctic claims to Canada) had already visited and claimed the remote parts of the Arctic.

More recently Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited the Arctic for a tour of the remote and sparsely populated part of Canada.  This was more than a chance to reach out personally to voters.  Harper observed a joint military operation (Nanook) between Canada, the United States and Denmark and announced funding for an Arctic Research Station.

Over the course of his visit, Harper also announced that Canadian fighter-interceptors had shadowed Russian long-range bombers that had ventured near Canadian airspace.  These sorties have been a constant fact of life since the 1950’s, but no one has reported them or been remotely concerned by them since Russian Communism collapsed in 1991.  Unsurprisingly, Russia did not participate in Operation Nanook, and Canadian voters are left with the inference that the Sleeping Bear is again a threat to invade through the Arctic.  The government also announced the acquisition of new fighter-interceptors from the United States.  The opposition parties responded according to the script: our sovereignty is threatened and international “incidents” are being spun by the government for domestic political leverage.  We can always count on politicians to argue, simply for the sake of disagreeing.

The more interesting aspect of Harper’s visit was the Arctic Research Station.  It will be devoted to climate change research.  Climate change has altered the face of the Arctic drastically since the Defence Research Board abandoned Arctic research in the 1960’s, and new scientific study is certainly essential.  However, there are questions that remain.  How will this new research station coalesce with Harper’s sovereignty claims over the oil reserves in the Beaufort Sea, which are needed to satisfy Canada’s energy and oil needs, and especially with Harper’s need to appease his party’s base in oil-rich Alberta?  It could be a step towards meeting international climate change agreements like Kyoto and Copenhagen, it could just be opportunistic spending on make-work projects to earn votes, or it could be a subtle attempt to solve both.

The confrontation of myth and reality will continue indefinitely in the Arctic.

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