What's more, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has done much to propagate the notion that Canadian sovereignty in the North is indeed under siege: by famously warning of the North that we can either "use it or lose it", and by loudly denouncing Russian missions to the North Pole (the 2007 submarine flag-planting, the 2009 flight that occurred just prior to President Obama's first official visit to Canada, and an [allegedly] planned paratrooper drop), and characterizing them as provocative "stunts" specifically designed to chip away at our sovereignty.
This, no doubt, is at least partly self-serving: Harper's Conservatives campaigned in 2006 on promises to do more to bolster Canadian sovereignty in the North. Among other things, they promised to construct armed ice-breakers and military bases; to deploy a submarine detection system; and, perhaps ominously, to use unmanned aircraft (or "drones") to help keep tabs on this vast, frozen, and sparsely-populated region. These promises (to effectively militarize the North) proved popular with Canadians, and I think it is reasonable to say that the perceived threats to our arctic sovereignty played an important part in the Conservative's narrow electoral victories.
But despite it's continuing impact on Canadian politics, you may be surprised to learn that that the so-called "Scramble for the Arctic" is actually far less 'scramble-y' than you supposed. In fact, while it is true that Canada does have unresolved territorial disputes in the Arctic, there are only two disputes of much consequence in terms of Canadian interests: namely, that regarding the Northwest Passage; and that regarding the Beaufort Sea, off the coast of the Alaska/Yukon border. Furthermore, of these only one is an actual dispute over territory; and our primary antagonist is not the cunning Russians (whose attitude toward Arctic compromises was recently and promisingly demonstrated), but our friendly neighbors to the South.
The Northwest Passage
The dispute over the "Northwest Passage" (a somewhat unfortunate name which, like 'Middle East', betrays a vestigial eurocentricity), is not actually a territorial dispute, as it is sometimes suggested, but instead concerns control over the passage's maritime traffic. For it's part, Canada claims that this collection of straights constitute "internal, Canadian waters", and that foreign ships are thus obliged "to ask permission" before entering them: permission which, of course, we could then either refuse or attach conditions to. But the United States (along with the EU and Russia), while not contesting that these waters are indeed owned by Canada, nonetheless refutes this claim. In the words of David Wilkins, the former Bush administration's Ambassador to Canada, their position is that "the Northwest Passage, if and when it's navigable, is a straight to be used for international navigation - pure and simple"
As Canadians, we tend to be told that international navigation in the passage would be a bad thing because it would deny us the ability to levy a toll on the increasing number of ships expected to start using the passage as the ice melts. Moreover, we are told that it could greatly hamper our ability to prevent smugglers from using these waters, and to preempt environmental disasters, such as an "Exxon-Valdez"-esque oil spill, by refusing access to ships that fail to meet Canadian regulatory standards. To be sure, these are legitimate concerns, but they are concerns that need some perspective.
- The Toll: A routinely navigable Northwest Passage could apparently shorten the trip from Asia to Europe (currently routed through the Panama and Suez canals) by approximately 5000 kilometers, so it is possible that foreign ships might be willing to pay a toll to access it. However, it is important to realize that it will take many, many more years for it to become completely ice-free, and the voyage will long remain a relatively treacherous one. What's more, as the Canadian historian Gwynne Dyer points out, even if it were to become ice-free, the voyage could still prove prohibitively risky; and all the more so since the melting sea-ice will also allow for competition from the relatively safer passage through the Russian arctic. Because of all this, Dyer says, "it's very unlikely that the Northwest Passage is ever going to become a major sea-route." Of course, he could be wrong, but the point to take away from all this is that the profits to be had by charging foreign ships for use of the passage are by no means guaranteed to be very significant, especially considering the extensive investments that would be required to enforce such a toll. (Not to mention the complications it could pose to our foreign relations.)
- Smugglers: The jurisdiction to legitimately board, search, and seize foreign vessels that might be using the Northwest Passage to smuggle drugs, guns, illegal immigrants, is also cited as a good reason to establish absolute sovereignty over these waters. But this assertion, too, flounders somewhat on the treacherous nature of the voyage. Additionally, as it has been optimistically pointed out, if a smuggling problem ever did develop in the North, it would be as intolerable a situation for America as it would be for us, and a solution just as urgent (in fact, the former American Ambassador to Canada, Paul Cellucci, was moved to comment that "it's in [America's] security interest for the Northwest Passage to be part of Canada.") .But I personally think that this prospect is unlikely to make America 'see things our way'. Instead, I suspect they would simply offer to help the International Seabed Authority (ISA) patrol the area, or propose some other solution that doesn't involve their ships possibly being denied access to the Northwest Passage, or subjected to Canadian scrutiny: no doubt their major concerns. In any case, it is difficult for me to envision how our failure to prevail in this dispute would necessarily tie our hands to dealing with a major smuggling problem, should one arise.
- The Environment: Micheal Byers, an expert on the Canadian arctic, says that "my worry is the tramp steamer under Liberian flag and Philippine crew. You dangle a 4,000-mile shortcut in front of them - that means time and money. There will always be someone who rolls the dice. They run into uncharted rock, and all of a sudden it's Exxon Valdez times ten." Personally, I think this is the best reason to continue to contest international shipping in the Northwest Passage. However: 1) shipping restrictions in no way preclude the possibility of environmental disaster, as Australia recently learned; 2) a Canadian initiative resulted in the insertion of a special 'Arctic clause' into the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST), which gives us the power to enforce environmental protection laws in the Arctic up to 200 miles offshore (which makes a bit of a lie out of the claim that international shipping in the passage would be 'unrestricted'); and 3) I question the effect that militarization will have on this prospect - what are we going to do with non-compliant ships? Send ice-breakers to block their path, risking collision? Sink them with unmanned drones? Would this really help protect the environment? The growing risk of environmental disaster should really call for an expanded Coast Guard, since this would greatly enhance search and rescue capabilities that would more effectively prevent and mitigate environmental disasters. Unfortunately, our current government is neglecting the Coast Guard's arctic capabilities in favor of bulking up the Navy.
What's more, there are those who question whether Canada can hope to prevail in this conflict, regardless of how earnestly we make the attempt. Dyer, for example, goes on to suggest that those hoping that Canada will ultimately prevail in this dispute are effectively "dreaming in Technicolor". In my view he is probably right, considering the powers arrayed against us; and I think that the futility of the Canadian argument is the best reason not to allow this dispute to continue consuming national resources.
The Beaufort Sea
But this dispute is over territory, and resources to boot: a slice of the Beaufort Sea is claimed by both Canada and the US, and there are now suspicions that it harbors petroleum. Surely, any good patriot would have to admit that these things are worth standing up for.
But if there is a 'scramble' occurring in the Beaufort Sea it is a purely diplomatic one, and unlikely to be impacted by the construction of submarine detection systems, and so on. In any case, I doubt that an increased northern military capacity would really help us prevail in the Beaufort Sea dispute; and even if it would, do you think that makes it a good idea to effectively deploy our military against the US - a world superpower, and our most indispensable ally and trading partner?
The remaining disputes, like that with the Danes over tiny "Hans Island" (our only contested Arctic landmass), are not just relatively academic: as far as I can tell, they are currently being negotiated in good faith. So while I agree with this interesting article that the future could bring about as-yet unforeseen developments that could suddenly threaten the Arctic's political stability (like an independent Greenland), I still think it advisable to bear the actual nature of current situation in mind, and not to get to worked up by suggestions that "the true North strong and free" is under threat.
This is because the notion of an "Arctic Scramble" is doing more than just causing Canadian citizens to lose their hair, and compelling our politicians to make unrealistic and nonsensical promises (which, thankfully, are rarely kept). As Whitney Lackenbauer, the Canadian history Professor, reminds us: "we have broadcast to the world our intentions to beef up our military presence [in the North], as if this will help bolster our [arctic] sovereignty position". Lackenbauer, I think rightfully, then suggests that "this logic is problematic." Stephen Harper's "confrontational rhetoric", she warns, "feeds Russian paranoia that the West wants to 'keep Russia down'", and "produces a vicious cycle of mistrust" between Russia and the NATO countries. Thus, the 'Arctic Scramble' risks becoming somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophesy, as Canadians and Russians alike are apt to increasingly view their own attempts to protect their Arctic sovereignty as legitimate, and similar attempts by the other as threatening; while politicians on either side are likely to continue to both stoking the fire and riding the updraft to power.
What's more, the militarization of the Canadian North is diverting resources and attention away from the most effective and humane way that we could be solidifying our Arctic sovereignty: namely, improving the often deplorable living conditions (by Canadian standards) of the Inuit peoples. After all, they transferred their sovereignty over the North to the Canadian government with the signing of the 1993 "Nunavut Land Claims Agreement", but have yet to see many (any?) of the promises that were made to them in exchange delivered on. "If we don't uphold those promises," says Byers, "other countries will look at us and laugh, because they will realize we're not really serious about this whole Arctic sovereignty thing." If we continue to ignore this obligation, the situation could undermine Canadian Arctic sovereignty (not to mention our morality and our international reputation) far more effectively than the planting of a even a thousand Russian flags on the sea-floor of the North Pole.