Magazine article Behind the Headlines

Arctic Sovereignty? What Is at Stake?

Magazine article Behind the Headlines

Arctic Sovereignty? What Is at Stake?

Article excerpt


Arctic sovereignty has become once again a matter of political importance. The changing climate of Arctic regions, concerns about defence capability, interest in mineral exploitation, and greater awareness of the needs of Canada's indigenous peoples, have all combined to direct political attention to the north. Scholars such as Rob Huebert, Franklyn Griffiths, Michael Byers and Suzanne Lalonde, as well as indigenous leaders, have made important contributions to heightening awareness of the threats to Canada's north and have helped focus a debate about what should be done if Canada is to take its northern obligations and responsibilities seriously. Politicians have responded and the issue of "Arctic sovereignty" was prominent in the last election. Since then Prime Minister Harper has visited the North and confirmed his commitment to protecting Canada's Arctic sovereignty.

The term "Arctic sovereignty" is a touchstone in Canadian political debate, it conjures up images of Canada losing its national heritage in the north, of the United States asserting rights over what is rightfully Canadian, of the sacrifices made by Canada's indigenous people in the far north in order to secure what Canada claims as its own. A Canadian government that stood silent in the face of a claim that Arctic sovereignty was in peril would be renouncing Canada's history and the aspirations of its forbears. "Arctic sovereignty" strikes a chord that resonates powerfully.

The word "sovereignty" however, can mean different things to different people. It has political, legal, economic and social dimensions. The sovereignty of a state is often seen to be synonymous with independence. A sovereign state is an independent state, one that is not subject to the authority of any other state. Independence, while easily stated, has different connotations in a globalized world. While as a matter of law all states are sovereign and independent, the degree of actual independence might vary whether one is looking at the matter from a political or economic perspective. So, too, one's appreciation of the "threat" to Arctic sovereignty might vary according to the particular meaning one places on the term sovereignty.

What, then, is really at stake in the sovereignty debate? What is it that Canada stands to lose as a matter of law if it does not stand up for its Arctic sovereignty? And what does standing up for Arctic sovereignty mean? To understand the issues it is necessary to go back and trace the history of the Arctic sovereignty debate and then see where things stand today.


Canada's Arctic consists of land, water and ice, sometimes permanently frozen, increasingly not. In 1907 Senator Poirier advocated that Canada's Arctic claim should extend from the mainland of Canada up to the North Pole, bounded by sector lines--the 141st meridian of west longitude to the west and the 60th meridian of west longitude to the east--which would form an apex at the North Pole. This is what is known as the sector claim in the Arctic. Although Poirier may well have been concerned only with the land within that sector, the sector claim has often been seen as a claim to sovereignty over land and waters. Certainly any discussion of Canada's Arctic sovereignty relates to the islands and waters lying north of the Canadian mainland, what is often referred to as the Canadian Arctic archipelago.

At the time of Senator Poirier's speech there was uncertainty about sovereignty over islands in the Arctic, but by the end of the 1930's rely dispute over the islands within the Poirier sector, had abated. Indeed, to the extent that the High Arctic relocations of Inuit peoples were based on a desire to support Canada's sovereignty in the Arctic, by then it was no longer relevant as far as sovereignty over the land was concerned. With the exception of Hans Island, a small island in the Kennedy Channel between Greenland and Ellesmere Island whose sovereignty is disputed between Denmark and Canada, there is no challenge to Canada's sovereignty over the islands of the Arctic. …

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