Cold war: Canada secures its Arctic borders

Sarah Starkey

Arena Sovereignty

Russian manoeuvres in the Arctic have prompted Canada to increase its military presence at its northern borders. But many of the country’s northern, mostly aboriginal, population see growing numbers of armed forces as a threat to traditional ways of life and would rather government money was spent on raising living standards


© Golgo 12 CC BY-SA 3.0

The Arctic Circle is an untapped goldmine of natural resources, possessing more than a quarter of the undiscovered energy resources of the planet, according to the US Geological Survey, and countries within the Arctic Circle are hastening to define their northern borders before anyone else can stake a claim. With Canadian ownership of the Northwest Passage, Han’s Island and the waters beyond the Yukon in dispute, alongside Russia’s plans to increase its military presence and develop strategies for exploiting resources, internationally-recognised sovereignty is becoming more important than ever before, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is calling for an improved defence system of surveillance and regulation. The government’s strategy to maintain a strong presence in the north, define the border and augment stewardship has the potential to greatly benefit Canada in an economic sense.

“Our government is committing the resources necessary to ensure that Canada secures international recognition of the full extent of its continental shelf, including the North Pole,” says Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

But concerns about militarisation, big-budget infrastructure developments, patrol ships and fighter jets have the population questioning whether spending could be better used elsewhere. Communities of the north want their voices heard – security should begin with the people, they say.

Dr Maura Hanrahan, formerly a special adviser on aboriginal affairs to Canadian academics, believes that more questions should be raised as to the level of responsibility the government should be held accountable for. Stressing that she is speaking in a personal capacity, she says: “Harper uses the word ‘security’ but restricts its meaning to the military sense. What if Canada were to expand its understanding of security to include food security and water security? What if Canada were to expand its understanding of development to mean affordable housing, housing that is suitable to northern climates, indigenous language preservation, etc?”

Northern aboriginal communities are faced with the daunting reality of higher suicide rates, higher infant mortality rates and shorter life expectancies than their countrymen further south, and this is coupled with an overall lack of health care, education and jobs. A significant percentage of families are living below the poverty line. In this vulnerable state, community members are asking the government to shift priorities from militarisation, which is seen as a threat to traditional ways of life, to social development in order to retain and support a northern population. Former Premier of Nunavut Eva Aariak states that the “human dimension” is a critical part of maintaining Arctic sovereignty: “It is our communities that face the greatest risks from development and so it follows that we should also receive the greatest benefit.”

The Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), a representative body for Canadian Inuit, has been a major contributor to promoting Inuit interests and spreading awareness of the issues facing the northern populations for the last few decades. Rosemarie Kuptana, the ITK’s former president, an activist and a prominent Inuit leader, gives an insight into the effect that developing the region would have on the people who have inhabited the land for thousands of years in a documentary film entitled Inuit Voices on Arctic Security: “Inuit security is more about having used and occupied the land… the coastal waters and the oceans for our way of life.”

She underlines the importance of being able to access and hold the rights to the land and sea for hunting and fishing – the traditional means of survival. In order to safeguard this, maintaining habitats for sealife and other animals is crucial. Were there to be an increase in activity in the Arctic, these habitats would be impacted greatly in a potentially irreversible way. Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) Canada president Duane Smith says: “Increasingly in recent years, Inuit traditional knowledge and insight has been called upon to determine the best way forward in response to a changing Arctic. Inuit have responded and provided leadership in documenting and promoting their long-standing sea ice use and way of life, making recommendations to avoid the detrimental impacts of increased shipping in the region.”

Proposed alternatives for the mutual advancement of Arctic sovereignty, allowing a traditional way of life not only to be protected, but to prosper as well, have been brought to the foreground of political debate. Expansion of the Northern Rangers programme, a volunteer group made up of mostly indigenous people as part of the Canadian Forces Reserves, is one such proposed move and aims to incorporate the population while patrolling borders and enhancing stewardship.

Although the Canadian government has promised inclusion and co-operation in moving forward, along with Harper’s pledge of investment in “social and economic development, as well as in environmental protection”, there has been little evidence of progress on the ground. Frank Kuin, a correspondent for the Netherlands-based news outlet NRC Handelsblad living in Quebec says: “Harper made it a priority when he became Prime Minister in 2006 to make Canada more assertive in the Arctic, which is obviously becoming more accessible due to global warming and the melting of the Arctic sea ice. Since he was elected, he has made annual trips to the Arctic.”

Although a lack of available funding has altered Harper’s original proposal for new icebreakers, a budget of C$3.1 billion will buy four smaller, much lighter patrol vessels that have been widely criticised in the media as being merely ‘slush breakers’. With the vast expanse of coastline and insufficient capabilities for patrolling the borders at all, other propositions should be encouraged and genuinely considered.

Having a strong aboriginal presence in the north strengthens the claim to Canadian ownership and concurrently acknowledges the importance of the Inuit and the role they have played in the land claims through history.

“In exercising our sovereignty… we are not only fulfilling our duty to the people who called this northern frontier home, and to the generations that will follow; we are also being faithful to all who came before us,” says Stephen Harper.

Okalik Eegeesiak, Canadian chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, adds: “Inuit will still be in the Arctic when the last barrel of oil and the final piece of ore is extracted from our land.”

Finding a mutually beneficial solution can mean improving job and educational prospects, minimising environmental impact and bringing economic development for all Canadians.

About the author:

Sarah Starkey is a staff writer at Global - the International Briefing


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