The business and politics of Canada’s Arctic interests

Isabel Nanton

A fragile ecosystem covering one-sixth of the earth’s surface, the Arctic region has swung into vivid focus as the world’s voracious demand for commodities – including the Arctic’s long-buried oil and gas resources – accelerates daily.

In Canada, the focus is being fine-tuned on many fronts. From a business and environmental perspective, present concerns are perhaps best typified by the Mary River iron ore mine projected for the north of Baffin Island. The plans call for the building of a C$2-billion, 149-kilometre railway over the permafrost. Operating every day for 21 years, trains would move 18 million tonnes of iron ore annually into 12 ice-breaking ships, which would transport the metal on a 45-day voyage to Rotterdam all year round.

The opening up of new shipping routes, the creation of 5,000 direct jobs, and the prospect of C$5 billion in tax revenue and royalties, devolving to Nunavut Territory, are being held out as the advantages for the approximately 5,000 Inuit living within 400 kilometres of the mine. Many of these currently make a living from hunting the caribou that roam across the projected railway’s route.

At the May 2011 meeting of Arctic nations, Norwegian foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Støere, declared that each sovereign state will make its own decision about its own individual Arctic landmass. The exceptional, and some might argue disproportionate, influence across the Arctic region of Russia and the US nevertheless looms large over such proceedings.

The US has long been pressing Canada on the Northwest Passage, which Canada claims as its own waterway. In 1969, without seeking prior permission from the Canadian government, the Americans sent a specially reinforced super-tanker, the SS Manhattan, to test the route. The same thing happened again in 1985 when the US ice-breaker, Polar Sea, sailed through the Northwest Passage.

Eventually, like the Straits of Malacca, the Passage may be designated an international waterway, since, according to Canadian American affairs scholar, Professor Allan Smith, of the University of British Columbia: “No one has wanted to be seen to be taking Canada’s part.”

Using the doctrine of effective possession – which says that a state has to have policed, flown planes over and sent shipping around any contested body of water – Canada has, since the SS Manhattan incident, been well aware that it needs an assertive Arctic strategy. In 1969, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau organised a response that involved Inuit Canadian Rangers wearing baseball hats and toting rifles. Now, the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made Canada’s North a more visible part of its agenda – although a recent WikiLeaks cable suggested that the US sees Harper’s talk about Canadian Arctic sovereignty as “little more than empty chest-thumping designed to win votes”.

Canadians are well aware of the irony facing those who actually live in the Arctic (who have contributed the least to global warming and are suffering the greatest consequences) now being open to exploitation by nations that rank as the worst polluters. There is a constant topic for debate in the uneven balance between fragile ecosystems and the potential for enormous revenues. And while most Canadians consider their Arctic sovereignty as inviolable, they are mindful that the melting sea ice across this shared area of spherical, international geography means further negotiation is inevitable.

About the author:

Kenya-born writer Isabel Nanton lives in Canada and East Africa, working as a journalist, author of both non-fiction and fiction, broadcaster and teacher.


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