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Canada-US Relations and Arctic Sovereignty

January 20, 2009

I’m getting more prosaic again very quickly, but since the Arctic has been singled out over and over as a major new issue in Canada-US relations (Michael Ignatieff recently said it was one of three priorities along with energy and the environment), I thought it might be worthwhile to share some of the research I’ve been doing. For those who aren’t clear, the reason this is suddenly such an issue is that climate change is reducing the ice cover in the Arctic, and freeing up access both to shorter shipping routes and to hidden oil and gas reserves. Here are two government publications outlining Canada’s position:

Controversial Canadian Claims over Arctic Waters and Maritime Zones: We think the Northwest Passage is an internal waterway (i.e. ours). The Americans (and Europeans) don’t.  This matters because if it’s an internal waterway then our laws (including environmental protections) apply here, as do our claims to any oil. In the 70s and 80s, the US drove some ships through there without asking for our permission. We didn’t like that. The Americans also don’t agree with our understanding of what parts of the Beaufort Sea (between the Yukon and Alaska) belong to us.

The Arctic: Canada’s Legal Claims: We own all the Arctic islands, except Hans Island, which the Danes claim they own. We’re also trying to figure out exactly what we might lay claim to as a result of our continental shelf. There will probably be lots of disputes over this in coming years, regardless of Russian flag-planting expeditions in the North Pole (since if planting a flag was all it took, we could expect the Russians to acknowledge American claims to the moon.)

Though I do find the international legal disputes over who owns what somewhat interesting, I have to say there seem to be bigger issues related to climate change and the Arctic – namely, what will happen to Northern communities as a result of a warming planet.

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