A recent Arctic Council agreement has ratcheted up Canada's commitment to international cooperation for search and rescue efforts in its northern territories. While the legally binding agreement will not be signed until the next Council's ministerial meeting May 12, coordination has already begun between effected national Coast Guards.
The December 2010 agreement will work to improve arctic search and rescue efforts on two levels. University of Calgary political science associate professor and associate director of the centre for military and strategic studies Robert Huebert said the agreement will put in place necessary mechanisms required for assistance in the arctic, across borders, helping to prevent any delays in emergency situations and effectively cutting through "the bureaucratic red tape."
The agreement also coordinates search and rescue equipment by pooling resources.
"If something happens in the high north and we don't have enough equipment nearby and the Russians happen to have an icebreaker, we've got everything in place so that they can immediately go to them in the first place," said Huebert.
This is particularly important from a Canadian standpoint, explained Huebert, as our icebreaker fleet is aging considerably and the four Twin Otter aircraft dedicated to arctic search and rescue are stationed in Yellowknife. Having international resources in place would shorten response time if Canadian teams are unable to respond.
The agreement is a landmark for the young Arctic Council, formed in 1996 and consisting of Canada, the United States, Russia, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Up to this point, the council was primarily used for analytical and scientific examination, a role Huebert said it filled quite nicely by providing scientific analysis of climate change in the arctic.
This agreement marks the first time the council has waded into policy making waters, a function that nations such as the United States and Russia initially opposed during the council's inception. Suddenly the Arctic Council is being used as a venue to negotiate military led search and rescue efforts.
"The footnote makes it very clear, Arctic Council shall not consider security issues," said Huebert. "And yet here we are having an agreement led by the Americans and Russians."
This event suggests the potential for future security agreements and a legitimizing process for the Arctic Council.
"It will be the first step towards the Arctic Council becoming more of a governing body for the whole region" explained former Liberal MP and professor emeritus at Trent University Peter Adams.
How this will ultimately affect Canada's attempts to assert sovereignty in the north remains to be seen.
"Any international agreement is actually using sovereignty to surrender sovereignty," explained Huebert. "You're surrendering sovereignty for what you really want, which is the proper usage of the arctic."
In the event that an emergency was to occur in Canada's arctic, the agreement makes it much easier for Canada to turn to its neighbours for help. By surrendering some authority over to an international cooperation such as the Arctic Council, Canada may be able to strive towards future development of arctic resources by knowing it has the resources to provide safety to workers in the area.
"As the arctic melts, as we discover more resources . . . you're gonna see increased gold mining throughout the Northwest Territories, probably increased diamond mining and of course the ever present oil and gas," Huebert said.
However controlling such a large tract of this resource rich region gives Canada considerable leverage if the Council were to become a policy-making body. As Adams explained, the Arctic is simply too big and complicated a region for any one nation to deal with alone and a cooperative venture is the only way.
"Working with these others, you do realize, that between Russia and the United States we are in an incredibly strong brokering position," Adams said.
Arctic developments are becoming more pressing to the Canadian government in recent years as global warming increases use of the formerly ice-covered Northwest Passage. A University of Toronto international survey released Jan. 25 showed over 40 per cent of Canadians thought the country should "pursue a firm line in defending its sections" of the Arctic.
"We as a sovereign state are entitled to our resources as much as anyone else is," explained Mike Mcleod, a fourth-year international relations major.
"We need to take all the steps necessary to especially ensure that somebody doesn't attain our resources ahead of us."