Douglas & McIntyre

Interview Details

Shelagh D. Grant

Shelagh D. Grant

June 2010

Feeling confused about the situation in the Arctic? Shelagh Grant, historian and professor, is an authority on the history of the region. She explores sovereignty in the North in Polar Imperative and answers questions here.

Why is Polar Imperative different from other books written on Arctic Sovereignty?

This book uses the history of the North American Arctic to show how sovereign authority was established within the context of evolving international law. Laws of the sea, in particular, tended to adjust to persistent disregard or defiance of existing laws. The narrative also shows how a major “de facto” loss of sovereignty, often precipitated an eventual loss of title. Moreover, by employing a comparative methodology to focus on the experiences of Russia, Norway, the Netherlands, Britain, Denmark, the United States and Canada, Polar Imperative reveals why some countries succeeded and others failed to retain sovereign control. Comparison also highlights the objectives of those countries vying for a foothold in the region and the diverse political cultures that directly affected the outcome—American expansionism and the Monroe Doctrine as one example.

Does Polar Imperative offer insight into historical events not published elsewhere?

While a good part of the book is based on secondary sources, original archival research was used to examine the reasons behind the British Colonial Office’s urgency to transfer the Arctic Islands to Canada in the late 1870s; its relationship to an American proposal to establish a colony on northern Ellesmere Island; the British Admiralty’s refusal to define the boundaries of the Arctic Islands; and Britain’s Secretary of State’s refusal to involve Parliament in the transfer. This also explains Britain’s subsequent objections to any assertion of Canadian sovereign rights in the Arctic that might alienate the United States or run counter to its own policy advocating “freedom of the seas.”

Why is this history relevant to current issues affecting the Arctic?

Tracking the evolution of sovereign authority shows how various factors—primarily changes in climate, demands for resources, new technologies, economic conditions and naval supremacy—either encouraged or deterred exploration, discovery claims, settlement and development. When two or more of these factors converged, there were often threats to existing authority and in many cases a major loss of control. In two instances, this led to abandonment of title, as in Russia’s sale of Alaska and in Britain’s transfer of the Arctic Islands to Canada. At present, we are witnessing a similar convergence of changes that is again creating challenges to the status quo, this time from non-Arctic countries over the right to regulate commercial shipping in adjacent waters and to restrict access to mineral resources of the seabed. Of all the Arctic countries, Canada appears least able to enforce its regulations.

Who is to blame for Canada’s lack of preparedness?

No single government or political party is at fault. The problem began in 1880 when Britain insisted on the transfer of the Arctic Islands to Canada, which had no navy or coastguard to monitor or control foreign fishing and mineral extraction. In the 1920s, Canada attempted to assert control over the Archipelago by establishing RCMP posts at strategic locations. Then the Depression, WWII and the Cold War intervened, with the latter requiring major initiatives on the part of the United States to secure the region. Oil and gas discoveries created further need for unilateral declarations of sovereign rights that were later supported by bilateral and international agreements. With the possible exception of the 1920s, the Canadian government failed to invest sufficient money and manpower to fully protect the vast waters of the Arctic Islands and instead relied on bilateral agreements with the United States should an emergency arise. As long as the Arctic waters remained sufficiently frozen to deter commercial shipping, there was no urgent need for major expenditures.

Do you see a solution to the current tensions?

Full cooperation of all the Arctic countries is imperative to prevent infringement on their sovereign rights. Even then, Canada will be forced to seek accommodation with the United States to regulate traffic in the Northwest Passage. In order to prevent a major de facto loss of sovereignty, Canada must also be prepared to immediately upgrade and expand its Arctic coastguard vessels and begin construction of a deep sea port as a summer base near the entrance to Lancaster Sound. The United States might be encouraged to do the same at the western end of the Passage.

Where do the Inuit fit in all this?

Polar Imperative examines how the Inuit of North America have slowly emerged from colonial repression and gained control over their lives through land claims settlements and various forms of self-government. Even so, Canadian Inuit are still at a distinct disadvantage in terms of education, employment opportunities and access to resource revenue compared to Alaskan Eskimos and Greenlanders. At the same time, however, the Inuit Circumpolar Council created a strong unifying force among the Inuit of North America, which in turn placed Greenland firmly within the North American community. What I refer to as “a wild card” was Greenland’s referendum in 2008 that resulted in an overwhelming majority voting in favour of future independence. Should Canada and Denmark continue to exclude the Inuit from international discussions on the Arctic—as occurred in the G5 meetings at Ilulissat and more recently in Quebec—Greenlanders and Canadian Inuit might well consider other options. In accordance with the Monroe Doctrine, the United States might prove to be a willing ally in any move toward independence, noting that on at least three occasions, Washington attempted to purchase Greenland outright. Unfortunately, Canadian Inuit will be the most adversely affected should Canada be unable to enforce its regulations on shipping and offshore drilling.

Who should be reading this book?

All Canadians, Americans, Greenlanders and Danes! Although based on sound academic research, the straightforward language and unique collection of maps, images and photographs was designed to inform and appeal to a general readership. While it is ultimately the responsibility of the Arctic countries’ political leaders to devise policies and allocate financial resources needed to retain their sovereign rights, they will need the support of a fully informed electorate to make the necessary decisions to achieve those goals. We can no longer allow details of Arctic sovereignty issues to remain hidden from public view for security reasons. Nor can we afford gaps in historical knowledge that misguide our perception.

D&M Marketing, Jun 17, 2010
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