Who owns the Arctic?

Meanwhile, at the Globe and Mail, we find a review of
Who Owns the Arctic? Understanding Sovereignty Disputes in the North, by Michael Byers, Douglas & McIntyre, 147 pages, $22.95

Reviewed by Ken McGoogan

Published on Monday, Jan. 18, 2010

For Arctic explorers seeking to enter the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic, one of the challenges came early in any voyage: In Davis Strait, the only way to reach Lancaster Sound, they had to cross or go around the so-called Middle Ice. This vast, floating expanse of pack ice, dotted with massive icebergs and rolling “growlers,” has trapped or wrecked scores of vessels down through the centuries.

In 1819, during a lucky year, Edward Parry managed to thread his way through the ice to the entrance of Lancaster Sound. In 1834, he spent two months trying and failing to repeat that accomplishment. In the 1850s, Elisha Kent Kane narrowly escaped shipwreck while crossing the Middle Ice – and that experience was typical.

Flash-forward to the present decade. In the past three years, I have sailed three times in the waters of Davis Strait – and not once have I seen any trace of Middle Ice. In Who Owns the Arctic?, author Michael Byers summarizes the end result this way: “It is one thing to learn from temperature gauges and remote sensing satellites that climate change is accelerating beyond all scientific expectations, and another thing to see the change unfold before your eyes.”

Anybody who even dabbles in the history of Arctic exploration and then sails in the Northwest Passage will arrive at that same realization. Explain it how you will, the Far North has changed radically: Where once great barriers of ice prevented ships from sailing through the archipelago that is Northern Canada, today that ice is nowhere to be found for weeks and even months at a stretch.

“ Canadian officials should start paying greater attention to the Inuit who inhabit the North”

In this short, authoritative, well-written work, Byers – who has led two major research projects in the Arctic – explores the implications of this new navigability. He also provides expert analysis and advice. Because the Northwest Passage will soon offer even oil tankers a route between the Pacific and the Atlantic that is 7,000 kilometres shorter than sailing through the Panama Canal – saving time, fuel and transit fees – “ there is no doubt that ships will come.”

To see the threat requires no prescience. Remember the Exxon Valdez? In 1989, off Alaska, this massive tanker hit a reef and spilled 10.8 million gallons (40 million litres) of crude oil into the water, an environmental disaster that killed hundreds of thousands of seabirds, fish and mammals, and destroyed an ancient way of life for people living in the vicinity.

Canada needs to control shipping through the Northwest Passage. The country needs to establish standards (we won’t accept rusting junk vessels) and regulate traffic (who is sailing where and what are they carrying). And so we arrive at the sovereignty issue.

If the Northwest Passage is an international strait, as many Europeans and Americans contend, then ships will be able to sail through it without so much as a by-your-leave. If the passage is Canadian internal waters – and today it comprises several possible routes through dozens of islands – then the federal government can pass the necessary laws to protect our northern environment and citizens.

Having worked with Americans on international commissions, Byers argues that we should be able to gain their support, if only because Canadian control of the passage would serve their security interests: Do they really want terrorists sailing freely in the Canadian North? Of course, we have to demonstrate that we can enforce whatever laws we make. To that end, Byers urges that we immediately begin building “three or four mid-sized, multi-purpose Coast Guard icebreakers … with a light machine gun mounted on each forward deck.”

At the same time, Canadian officials should start paying greater attention to the Inuit who inhabit the North, not just out of humanitarian concern for fellow Canadians, but because, to speak bluntly, it is in the nation’s interest. Having lived in the Arctic for thousands of years, on the islands and also on the ice that links those islands for most of each year, the Inuit constitute our last best argument.

“The strongest element in Canada’s [sovereignty] claim,” Byers writes, “is the historical occupation by the Inuit, who have hunted, fished, travelled and lived on the Northwest Passage for millennia.” Together, the Inuit constitute “a powerful manifestation” of Canada’s legal position. Byers has found that, when he articulates Canada’s stance abroad, “the thousands of years of Inuit use and occupancy of the sea ice is the only dimension of our legal position that resonates with non-Canadians.”

Despite this, when the Harper government decided, rightly, to build a deep-water port in the Arctic, Byers writes, “it ignored Inuit views on the appropriate site.” Instead, it chose a disused lead-and-zinc mine, even though the Inuit “had lobbied hard for a similar facility at Iqaluit” with a view to serving the larger purpose while also boosting the local economy. As one Inuit leader later observed, that kind of decision-making “is not going to work.”

In this comprehensive book, Byers addresses ownership of the oil and gas reserves in the Beaufort Sea, the Arctic activities of the Russians (we shouldn’t feel threatened), and the not-so-burning question of who owns tiny Hans Island. As an Arctic-issues primer, this timely, cogent, focused work cannot be beat.

Ken McGoogan, who sails as a resource historian with Adventure Canada, is the award-winning author of four books about the search for the Northwest Passage, among them Fatal Passage and Race to the Polar Sea.

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