Grand Arctic promises

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support for as little as $5 per month!

Michael Byers is the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC. He is the author of the new book, Who Owns the Arctic?, new book that explains the sometimes contradictory rules governing the division and protection of the Arctic and the disputes that remain unresolved. He was interviewed by Am Johal.


Am Johal: It is still rather unclear how sovereignty over the North will be asserted by Canada. The North is hot right now as a political issue -- whether it's Stephen Harper's visits to the North or the Russians planting flags under the North Pole. Your book largely dismisses most of these incidents as political posturing and theatre that has more to do with election timing and political communications than anything to do with substance. Many politicians are using the 'use it or lose it' approach to the North. What is Canada doing well and what could it be doing better in the North from an economic, social and political level?

Michael Byers: Stephen Harper isn't the first prime minister to make grand Arctic promises and then fail to deliver. John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney did so too. But the fact that Harper talks about the North is an improvement over Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, who showed almost no interest in the region. A serious Arctic policy would move beyond rhetoric and into implementation: investing substantially in affordable housing, health care and education; developing commercial harbours and other civilian infrastructure necessary for economic development; improving search-and-rescue and cooperating with Denmark, the United States and Russia to protect the environment and resolve the few, relatively small overlaps in our sovereignty claims.

AJ: What are the more near-term impacts of climate change on the North?

MB: The sea-ice is melting at an alarming rate, with reputable scientists warning of a seasonally ice-free Arctic Ocean as early as 2013. When that happens, the Northwest Passage will resemble the Gulf of St. Lawrence where ice-strengthened cargo ships and icebreaker escorted convoys operate throughout the year. On land, the permafrost is melting, causing roads and pipelines to heave and crack, and releasing huge quantities of methane (a greenhouse gas 22 times more powerful than carbon dioxide) as long-frozen organic material decays.

Northern ecosystems are highly specialized. Arctic Cod, for instance, have evolved to feed on plankton that live on the underside of sea-ice. The cod are the principal food source for ringed seals which in turn are the principal food source for polar bears. Since the difference between ice and water is measured in just fractions of one degree, climate change will decimate these species. And within my lifetime, the average annual temperature in the Western Canadian Arctic has already risen by three degrees Celsius.

There is a terrible irony here. Canada, with 40 per cent of its territory in the Arctic, is experiencing a full-blown climate catastrophe. Yet we remain among the worst per-capita greenhouse gas emitters on Earth. People need to see the connection -- and demand better of themselves and our governments.

AJ: Any investments or decision-making about the North needs to have the support of the Inuit. Are the existing mechanisms for involvement adequate? What kind of social investments need to be made in the North?

MB: When they signed the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, the Inuit surrendered a possible claim to aboriginal title over one-fifth of Canadian territory. They also expressly assigned to Canada any sovereign rights they had acquired by living, hunting and travelling on the Northwest Passage for thousands of years. In return, they've received nothing but broken promises, including the flat-out refusal of the Canadian government to fund an education system that could graduate more than the 25 per cent of Inuit kids who currently make it through high school.

To give you another, very recent example of how southern politicians overlook the Inuit: all four parties in Ottawa support re-naming the Northwest Passage the "Canadian Northwest Passage." But nobody thought to consult the Inuit, even though the right to be consulted on geographic names is spelled-out in the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. It turns out that the Inuit would prefer us to all use an Inuktitut name for the Northwest Passage. This makes sense historically, morally and also legally, since it would underline the essential Inuit contribution to Canada's sovereignty claim.

AJ: There are some upcoming processes at the international level that will determine some elements of claims to the Arctic by Canada, the U.S., Russia, Denmark and Norway. What does Canada stand to gain or lose related to the Arctic at these international bodies where these decisions are being made?

MB: The decisions are not in fact made by international bodies, since the body in question -- the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf -- will not make recommendations concerning areas subject to overlapping claims. All the Commission does is assess the scientific evidence advanced in support of uncontested claims, with any coastal country being entitled to sovereign rights over any "natural prolongation" of its continental shelf. Overlapping claims need to be resolved by negotiation, now, before the stakes are raised by more melting ice and peak oil. Unfortunately, the Canadian government has failed miserably on the diplomatic front, making false accusations of law-breaking against Russia with respect to a flag-plant at the North Pole (which is located on the "high seas") and bomber flights (which stayed well within international airspace). With President Barack Obama "pushing the reset button" on U.S.-Russian relations, it's time for Canada to get with the program. It's time for us to actively seek and support international cooperation across the circumpolar North.

AJ: Canada may have diminished their claims to the North as a result of allowing Arctic waters to be used by foreign submarines, knowingly. How has Canada erred strategically in asserting its claims to the Arctic?

MB: Submarines are the main reason why the United States insists the Northwest Passage is an "international strait" open to foreign vessels without constraint. In an international strait, submarines may sail submerged and are not required to notify the coastal state. Under Canada's position, which is that the Northwest Passage constitutes internal waters, submarines would have to sail on the surface and have our explicit permission.

As a NATO partner of the United States, Canada may well have knowledge of submarine voyages through the Northwest Passage. This might actually constitute a problem for us, since if we know, and our permission has not been sought and given, the voyages would constitute precedents in favour of the U.S. position.

However, Canada's greatest strategic failure has been the lack of significant investment in Coast Guard icebreakers, navigation aids and charts, civilian ports, and world-class search-and-rescue. For if other countries saw Canada taking the necessary steps to make the Northwest Passage a safe and efficient shipping route, available to responsible shipping companies from around the world, they would become much more amenable to our legal claims.

AJ: Hans Island is a long running issue, or non-issue, depending on how seriously one takes it as an international dispute. One of the possibilities of reconciliation between Canada and Denmark, according to your book, is to establish it as a condominium. Could you explain how that might work?

MB: The dispute over Hans Island concerns the land only: a grand total of 1.3 square kilometres. It has no implications for our other sovereignty disputes. The 2,685 kilometre maritime boundary between Greenland and Canada was established through negotiations between Denmark and Canada in 1973, and is not disputed.

The only reason that we have not resolved the Hans Island dispute is because Canadian and Danish politicians find it useful to have a no-risk, completely inconsequential sovereignty dispute -- especially before election campaigns. In other words, they are taking advantage of our nationalist sentiments, and our relative lack of knowledge about the North.

There are two simple solutions. We could divide Hans Island in half; or we could share sovereignty over it. Both approaches have been used elsewhere in the world, with Pheasant Island, located in the middle of the Bidosoa River between France and Spain, providing one model. The two countries share sovereignty, with administrative responsibility alternating every six months between the French municipality of Hendaye and the Spanish municipality of Irún.

AJ: Can you talk about the model negotiation you did with the former American ambassador to Canada, Paul Celucci?

MB: While Mr. Cellucci was still U.S. ambassador in October 2004, he said: We are looking at everything through the terrorism prism. Our top priority is to stop the terrorists. So perhaps when this [the Northwest Passage dispute] is brought to the table again, we may have to take another look.

Unfortunately, the Canadian government made no effort to follow up on what was, in effect, an invitation to negotiate. Indeed, it was not until August 2007 that Canada stepped forward -- abruptly and at the highest of levels -- when Stephen Harper reminded George W. Bush about Cellucci's views. Without any preparatory diplomacy, the news fell on deaf ears.

A few months later, I contacted Cellucci, who is now practising law in Boston, and suggested that a "model negotiation" might help delineate a path for official diplomacy. He agreed, and in February 2008 we met in Ottawa, backed up by two teams of the best non-governmental experts we could find. Our goal was to discuss the issues, identify possible solutions and make joint recommendations aimed at both governments.

We began by agreeing that government-to-government negotiations were urgently needed because increased northern shipping will be accompanied by greater security and environmental risks. We agreed that the long history of U.S.-Canada cooperation in the Arctic indicates the potential for bilateral agreement, as does the history of cooperation on shipping through other waters under national jurisdiction, such as the St. Lawrence Seaway. And though we did not solve the sovereignty dispute, we negotiated nine concrete recommendations, all of which raise the bar with respect to environmental and safety protections without compromising Canadian sovereignty. The recommendations, in their original form, are included as an annex in my book -- and I hope the Canadian and U.S. governments will read them.

AJ: What are the major economic opportunities in the North and what kind of transportation and infrastructure investments need to be made?

MB: Gas and other minerals are an important part of the Arctic's economic future, but they have to be developed carefully -- with a fair distribution of the income going to Northern governments.

New shipping routes also offer economic opportunity, especially for coastal countries prepared to invest in making them safe and efficient. I argue that Canada should launch an Arctic Gateway Initiative, developing commercial ports at Iqaluit, Bathurst Inlet and Tuktoyaktuk, and recapitalizing the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker fleet.

Tourism is already bringing many millions of dollars to northern communities. Developing the tourist industry further is the most attractive form of economic development for many Northerners, because it entails protecting the natural wonders that tourists come to see.

There is, of course, a downside to all of this, in that travelling to the North contributes to climate change. But travel also promotes understanding, concern, and ultimately political engagement, all of which is necessary too. That said, one way to gain a better understanding of the Arctic is to stay at home -- and read my book.

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.