Preserving Canada’s sovereignty

In a brazen display of force, Canada will dispatch two- dozen soldiers and a lone Mountie to fend off any impending land grab on the Arctic. While Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor thinks this is enough to enforce Canada’s arctic sovereignty, a tepid display such as this will only signal to the nations vying for rights in the area that Canada is like a turtle firmly planted on its back.

The two big attractions for the United States, Denmark, Russia and Norway–the four nations vying for the seemingly frozen wasteland­–are access to the Northwest Passage and the untapped natural resources of the region.

The Northwest Passage is of strategic importance as global warming has made it possible for the passage to become a viable trade route linking Europe and Asia. It’s 9,000 kilometres shorter than the current route through the Panama Canal. Also, the region’s natural resources provide even more incentive for the nations attempting to lay claim to the area. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Arctic is host to an estimated 25 per cent of the earth’s undiscovered energy reserves.

Leading the charge to denounce Canada’s claim to the Northwest Passage is the United States. After two instances of American ships travelling through the area without permission, Canada and the U.S. reached an agreement on “Arctic Cooperation” in 1988. Ostensibly solidifying Canadian claims to the waters by requiring U.S. ships to obtain permission before passing through, the agreement is rendered impotent by the implied condition that Canada will never deny one of these requests. In spite of its innate flaccidity, however, the U.S. government is still challenging the agreement. James Kraska, the oceans policy adviser to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently decried Canada’s Arctic sovereignty as “excessive” and “tenuous.”

Another issue confronting Canada’s Arctic sovereignty is the preposterous battle with Denmark over the 100-meter wide slab of rock known as Hans Island. Back in 1973, the two countries drew up an agreement partitioning the Nares Straight, which is located between Ellesmere Island and Greenland. Due to international regulations determining the territorial rights exercised by states over open water, the ownership of this island could potentially lead to tremendous exploitation rights. So far, this battle has largely consisted of the two nations’ militaries landing on the island and leaving the flag of their respective country behind. While the claim may seem miniscule, a Canadian American Strategic Review article in March of 2005 suggested this is only a precursor to larger territorial claims. Denmark has been spending exorbitant amounts of money on geological surveys to substantiate their claim. The report concludes by suggesting that Denmark also has the military capability to challenge Canada’s Arctic Sovereignty.

It seems that the only solution to Canada’s frequently-challenged claims in the Arctic is to increase our presence in the region so there is no dispute to be made. While some may think it isn’t worth the associated costs, there is great potential for an increase in our natural energy reserves. Also, if the Northwest Passage is used as an international shipping lane outside of Canada’s jurisdiction, any environmental disasters that may occur will affect our people, but would be out of our control.

The solution to this problem lies with the Inuit people. They have lived in what is now Canada’s Arctic for thousands of years. Further, they have a vested interest in preserving these areas as they rely heavily on the bounty of both the land and the sea. The Inuit community already participates with the military via the Canadian Rangers–a division of the Canadian Forces. This facilitates a cost-effective alternative to the increase in military presence presently being contemplated by the government. All of these facts can provide a basis for Canadian claims to sovereignty. These claims have no force, though, while the Inuit people remain outsiders to the political control of the region.

By devolving province-like powers over the coastal waters and natural resources of the Nunavut area–the territory the Inuit primarily inhabit–Canada can engage them as partners in the political process. Since the Inuit would be actively inhabiting and utilizing the area, as well as occupying a considerable role in the administration and security of the region, Canada’s sovereignty claims would be vastly improved. Indeed, the international community would have trouble arguing that the northern coast was any different from the East or West where no such disputes are forthcoming. Thus the Inuit provide the most viable opportunity to establish Canada’s Arctic as Canada’s Arctic.

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