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Canada, by fate and geography, is destined to be an Arctic country
Canada, by fate and geography, is destined to be an Arctic country
Michael Byers
August 20, 2007
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 For many people, looking at the Canadian Arctic from a foreign-policy perspective seems counterintuitive. Surely the main issues up north concern the treatment of indigenous Canadians, federal-territorial relations or the exploitation of resources on Canadian soil? But let’s think about these and other issues for a moment.

Canada’s longest international boundary is located in the Arctic, mostly in the form of the continental coastline and the straight baselines connecting the outer headlands of the archipelago. Although much of our northern boundary is between Canadian territory and the internationalized zone known as the “high seas,” Canada does have territorial disputes in the Arctic with three other countries: the United States over the boundary in the Beaufort Sea; Denmark over Hans Island and the boundary in the Lincoln Sea north of Ellesmere Island and Greenland, and (in all likelihood) Russia over overlapping continental shelf claims in the Arctic Ocean. And, of course, it has a dispute with the United States over the legal status of the Northwest Passage.

Acute environmental degradation is occurring in the Arctic as the result of pollution produced many thousands of kilometres away. Some steps to address these challenges have been taken through multilateral treaties, including the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and, less successfully, the Kyoto Protocol. Canada’s relationship with its indigenous peoples is directly implicated in most of these international issues.

The support of the Inuit is an important element of Canada’s claim to the Northwest Passage. The advocacy efforts of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference played a key role in securing a meaningful treaty on persistent organic pollutants. The Inuit have also mounted a significant international effort to address climate change, the leading global issue of the 21st century, by filing a complaint against the U.S. government with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Seen from this foreign policy perspective, it becomes all the more inexplicable that successive Canadian governments have neglected the indigenous people of the Arctic, including, most recently, by failing to implement key provisions of the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement.

In March 2005, I attended a workshop on the Northwest Passage in Iqaluit. John Amagoalik was there. So was Sheila Watt-Cloutier, then president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. Some of the other participants were among the first graduates of the Akitsiraq Law School, a satellite program of the University of Victoria. I have never encountered as much brain power around a single table as I did that day, not even in an Oxford dining hall.

Meeting Amagoalik was a particular pleasure. Relocated from northern Quebec to Resolute Bay in 1953, Amagoalik and his family were the victims of a heavy-handed Canadian government move to assert sovereignty over the High Arctic. He was then taken from his family and sent to residential schools in Churchill and Iqaluit. A subsequent political career earned him the title of “father of Nunavut,” the Inuit homeland and, since 1999, Canada’s third territory.

As president of the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, chair of the Nunavut Constitutional Forum, political adviser to the Tungavik Federation of Nunavut and then chief commissioner of the Nunavut Implementation Commission, Amagoalik negotiated on behalf of his people with a series of Canadian prime ministers. And he did so directly, on the basis of equality of status as a national leader. This was underlined for me when, during a conference dinner in Ottawa in June 2006, I asked Amagoalik if he remembered Ivan Head, Pierre Trudeau’s chief adviser on foreign policy and Arctic issues. “No,” he replied, without the slightest hint of hubris, “I only dealt with the principals.”

Yet many of the people Amagoalik represented are suffering from grossly inadequate housing and astonishingly high rates of unemployment, illiteracy, preventable disease and suicide. One month after our dinner, Amagoalik sent an email to inform me that, two days after returning to Iqaluit, he had been “medevaced” back to Ottawa with an advanced case of tuberculosis. How many Canadians know that TB, historically one of the world’s most deadly diseases, is endemic in our North today, in this, one of the richest and most medically advanced countries on Earth? Four months later, when visiting Kugluktuk in the western Arctic, I noticed that many of the Inuit who are normally very friendly— were greeting me without smiles. Meeting the town’s Anglican priest in the local museum-cum-Internet café, I asked what was wrong. “We buried a young man yesterday,” he said, “the third suicide in four months.”

To his credit, Lloyd Axworthy took some positive steps on Arctic issues when he was minister of foreign affairs. In 1996, Axworthy led the creation of the Arctic Council, a mechanism that draws together the eight countries and the indigenous people of the circumpolar North, to address common environmental, social and economic concerns. Among other accomplishments, the Arctic Council set in motion the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, one of the world’s most significant efforts to understand and raise awareness about climate change.

There are other examples of how looking at the North from a foreign-policy perspective can create opportunities. Georgiy Mamedov, the Russian ambassador to Canada, is strongly promoting the idea of an “Arctic bridge,” an international shipping route linking Murmansk in Russia to Churchill in Manitoba and then, by rail, to the heartland of the United States. His efforts have been well received, not least by the U.S. railway company OmniTRAX, which, in 1997, bought the Port of Churchill for the fire-sale price of $10, as well as the rail line from Churchill to Winnipeg. As climate change extends the shipping season, OmniTRAX—and some residents of northern Manitoba—should profit handsomely in the decades ahead.

The full co-operation of all three territorial governments is required. Just as Ottawa needs to help those governments expand and improve northern airports, a strong case can also be made for building a deepwater port at Iqaluit, as has been requested by the Government of Nunavut. A second deepwater port could usefully be constructed at Tuktoyaktuk, at the mouth of the Mackenzie River. And one way to improve the capacity of the territorial governments to address the challenges of a changing Arctic would be to change their fiscal relationship with Ottawa. At the moment, there is a certain incongruity between Prince Edward Island (5,660 square kilometres) being a province with control over its natural resources and the Northwest Territories (1,346,106 square kilometres) being a territory that does not have the right to receive any of the royalties received by Ottawa on its oil, gas and diamonds.

Canada, by fate and geography, is destined to be an Arctic country. Climate change and the global demand for natural resources are only accelerating the process, while introducing international elements— such as an ice-free Northwest Passage and a continental shelf dispute with Russia— that previous generations could not have imagined. Whether we like it or not, Arctic policy has become foreign policy. At the same time, the success of much of that foreign policy will depend on our ability to co-operate with the people who have long called the Arctic their home. In the North, the Inuit and other indigenous peoples are our sentinels, soldiers and diplomats. It is time for southern Canadians to look up, way up, and provide serious support for their efforts to build a true North strong and free.

Dr. Michael Byers holds the Canada research chair in global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia. His work on Arctic sovereignty has been funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and ArcticNet, a network of centres of excellence involving more than 100 scientists from 27 Canadian universities and five federal departments.

The above text is an excerpt from Dr. Byers’ new book, Intent for a Nation: A Relentlessly Optimistic Manifesto for Canada’s Role in the World, reprinted with permission of Douglas & McIntyre, 2007.


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