In the summer of 2007, the Russian government sent two icebreakers to the North Pole on a mission that was supposed to be mainly scientific. Only when the ships got to the top of the world did the geopolitical purpose of the venture become apparent to the rest of the world. Veteran Arctic explorer Artur Chilingarov, a member of Russia’s lower house of parliament, descended 14,000 feet in a deep sea submersible and deposited a Russian flag, cast in rust-free titanium, on the sea floor.
The entire event was choreographed and filmed in a way that was clearly intended to announce to the world, and to the Russian people back home, that the seabed under the Pole, the 1200-mile-long Lonsomov Ridge, was an extension of Russia’s continental shelf. Expedition members were treated like heroes when they came home. “We were there first and we can claim the entire Arctic, but if our neighbours want some part of it, then maybe we can negotiate with them,” said Vladimir Zhironovsky, the populist leader of Russia’s ultra nationalist Liberal Democratic Party.
Pure theatre as it was, given the rules and legal regime in place for resolving boundary issues in the Arctic, Zhirnovsky’s comments reflected in some measure what the Russians were thinking. A few days after the flag planting, strategic bombers were dispatched over the Arctic Ocean for the first time since the Cold War ended. “The division of the Arctic,” Rossiiskaya Gazetam, the Russian daily newspaper declared some time later, “is the start of a new redistribution of the world.”
Canada was the first – but not the only – country to protest. “This isn’t the fifteenth century,” said Peter MacKay, the country’s foreign minister. “You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say, we’re claiming this territory”.
Arctic Sovereignty Series by Ed Struzik (Published May 23 – June 27, 2010 )
• Staking Claims: Who owns the Arctic?
• Re-Mapping Canada’s Arctic
• In search of Arctic Riches
• Uneasy Passage: The Northwest
• Aboriginal Aspirations
• Science and Sovereignty
• High Time For A Tough Arctic Treaty?
In the late spring of 2009 when I was awarded the Michener-Deacon Fellowship, my goal was to try to make sense of this so-called race to the Arctic and to see what kind of national strategy would be required to protect and promote Canada’s sovereignty and security in the region. Thanks to the generous financial support of the Michener Awards Foundation, I was able to go where no journalist could possibly afford to go in these difficult times to pursue that topic.
The first stop was Ellef Ringness Island in the High Arctic where the Geological Survey of Canada was mapping the Arctic to help industry define where energy and mining resources might be found. Since it is this potential for resource development that had set off this race for the Arctic, this seemed like a natural place to start my investigations. Getting there, however, was not easy. It took me three days to get to Ellef Ringness by jet, turbo-prop, bush plane and helicopter. The island lived up to its reputation as being “the worst place in the world.” Here, the weather is the harshest in Canada according to an Environment Canada report and the water is poisonous. Coming as my visit did near the end of the trip, most of the food in camp was becoming stale or mouldy. The journey, however, was an eye-opener because it did explain why the Canadian government was investing $100 million on this pan-Arctic effort.
Once back in Resolute where the Canadian government has a research base station, I eventually hitched a ride on the Coast Guard’s Louis St. Laurent icebreaker, which was sailing through the Northwest Passage. That also seemed appropriate given the long-standing international dispute over the waterway. The United States and the European Union claim it is an international strait. Canada maintains that it is part of its inland waters. On board the icebreaker was a select group of people – a senior member of the Privy Council, the Legal Advisor for the Department of Foreign Affairs, Inuit leaders and government experts – who worked from morning until late at night for eight days straight discussing the issues of sovereignty and Canada’s vision for the Arctic. Thanks to them, I learned a great deal on that trip. But the one important lesson I learned is that sovereignty means different things to different people.
The people who interested me the most were the Inuit and other indigenous peoples of the Arctic world. In the past, whenever sovereignty, security and economic priorities came into play, environmental integrity and the cultural interests of indigenous northerners invariably suffered. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Arctic Russia where dozens of communities have been relocated over the years to make way for military bases, mines and other state interests. Russia, of course, was not the only country that relocated Inuit people. It happened here in Canada, in Alaska and Greenland as well. But going to Alaska and Arctic Russia with U.S. officials and Alaska native leaders showed me how this unfortunate past and common heritage has re-united Arctic people in an effort to make sure that the sovereignty mistakes of the past will not happen again.
Lessons of the past, however, are not easily earned. We’ve seen it here in Canada where the Government has responded to periodic challenges to sovereignty in the Arctic over the decades with various ambitious ideas, only to back off when public interest waned. I had been told by many experts that Norway was perhaps the one Arctic country that could teach us a few lessons. Not only had the Norwegians rapidly settled their boundary disputes with the Russians, they were engaging the rest of the world in their vision for the future of the Arctic. It was startling to see how much Norway had invested in Ny Alesund, the most northerly settlement in the world. Here in a former mining village that has just 40 people, they are hosts to ten countries, including China, India and South Korea, which have established Arctic research stations in Svalbard.
To honour the terms of this fellowship I wrote seven very long stories for the Edmonton Journal, which generously provided me with the space and considerable extra time to get it all done. Few journalists see their work spread out over two full pages; in this case I will get two pages and sometimes more for six weeks straight. The series begins on Sunday May 23, 2010 and ends with a story outlining my thoughts and recommendations on June 27, 2010. In time, and with some more independent travel, I hope to turn this into a book. Series available here.
That said, my efforts have already been recognized. Queen’s University recently appointed me a fellow at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy, which is part of the School of Policy Studies. Peter Harrison, the school’s director, was once head of the federal government’s Arctic strategy. He’s already got me busy planning projects that will build on this wonderful Michener-Deacon Fellowship.
2009 Michener-Deacon Fellow